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Warren Patriots most improved

JACKSONVILLE, FLA. – Ty Warren was merely filling in for Adam Vinatieri Monday, but he's been much more than a fill in while helping the Patriots to a second straight Super Bowl berth this season.

Vinatieri was scheduled to sit in this chair on this riser Monday during a media session at the Prime Osborn Convention Center in downtown Jacksonville, but Warren was called in as a last-minute replacement, a pinch hitter so to speak.

Warren homered. The second-year pro out of Texas A&M batted every pitch thrown his way up the gap for extra bases. The soft-spoken defensive lineman answered questions with the maturity of a seasoned veteran, which is the same way he manned his defensive line spot this season. He answered them the way almost any Patriot would have answered them.

Asked about the excitement of playing in two Super Bowls in his first two years, Warren barely smiled before casually spitting out, "It's not too bad. I feel fortunate to be in this situation twice."

That's all. No cockiness. No flamboyant behavior. No careless remarks about greatness or making history. Just, "it's not too bad."

I don't suppose it is. Dan Marino will hang a yellow Hall of Fame blazer in his closet, but went to only one Super Bowl during a long, successful career. He lost it to Joe Montana's 49ers that day and surely felt he would return to the big game. He didn't. Warren understands that any Super Bowl trip could be the last and he made certain not to stain his name with some ridiculous prediction. He merely feels fortunate as he should. But the Patriots are now fortunate to have him manning their left defensive end spot as they prepare to face the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

As a rookie first round pick last year, Warren saw spot duty as a backup and fill-in starter, playing in all 16 games with four starts. Much of his duty came behind Ted Washington at nose tackle, a position he can play, but for which he is not best suited.

He had modest production in 2003, finishing with 33 tackles while admitting his adjustment to the pro game hampered him at times and left him thinking rather than playing, a bad thing for a football player who must read and react rather than think and then react too late as the runner sprints past.

He enjoyed a strong spring in the Patriots offseason program, studied the playbook, watched film and defaulted into the starting job vacated by the free agent loss of starting left defensive end Bobby Hamilton, a job, we now know in hindsight, he likely would have won anyway.

After his quiet rookie season in which Warren neither established any level of dominance nor any sign of being a bust, it was natural to wonder if he was the worst of the Patriots three recent first round defensive linemen -- Richard Seymour (2001) and Vince Wilfork (2004) being the others.

Warren did little to shake that notion early on in 2004. He was pushed around in the season opener against the Colts when New England allowed 202 rushing yards. He had 10 tackles in that game, but very few came at the line of scrimmage. Those bad days ended relatively quickly as Warren gained experience and confidence.

It didn't take long in Year 2 for Warren to start holding his ground on the end. Almost suddenly, the work put in as a rookie and in the offseason started to pay dividends. He began playing stout run defense and shedding blocks to make tackles. By midseason, he was playing like a first round pick and it was almost is if a light bulb switched on in his head. He more than doubled his tackle total from last year, finishing 2004 with 64 stops and 3.5 sacks with a pair of forced fumbles.

It's no coincidence that the Pats run defense improved as Warren did. After allowing 221 rushing yards in Pittsburgh on Oct. 31 and 871 over the first seven games, the Patriots defense allowed 81, 50, 64, 77, 46, 150, 52, 46 and 135 yards over the last nine or 77.8 yards per game, an average that would have ranked No.1 in the league if not for the early season struggles.

They did it with veteran Keith Traylor sandwiched between Seymour, the 6th pick in the 2001 draft, and Warren, the 13th pick in the 2003 draft. Wilfork, the 21st pick in 2004, rotates in.

"We have a lot of young guys who were drafted in the first round and I think the future is bright for us," Warren said. "We are just going to continue working hard. The coaching staff is molding us the right way."

It has certainly molded Warren that way. The 6-5, 300-pound Bryan, Texas native is the most improved player on a Patriots roster that seems to improve collectively with each passing game. It's often said that an NFL player makes his biggest jump between years one and two, and Warren is evidence of that theory.

Washington's name is no longer uttered. No one wonders if Hamilton will be missed. Warren is part of the reason for that. He spent his rookie season with his eyes and ears opened, and now is part of a line that could be one of the league's more dominant groups for years to come.

But before looking too far ahead and predicting future greatness, Warren will play in his second Super Bowl this week.

And it's safe to assume that would not be the case if Warren had not improved dramatically and, along with his line mates, helped account for the loss of two defensive line starters off last year's Super Bowl champions.

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