When the Patriots lost 17-year veteran Junior Seau in the second quarter of the Bears game, they shifted into a different package that fans haven't seen much of. They stayed in their usual 3-4 defense, but Mike Vrabel moved to Seau's inside position, known as the "Will" position. The position's name is simply an indicator that he's the inside linebacker on the weak side. Tedy Bruschi usually plays the other inside position, known as "Mike." Coach Bill Belichick confirmed that Vrabel has been playing inside in practice for a while now.
"Mike's been working there in practice," coach Belichick said Wednesday. "We've kind of had five to play four since maybe the second, third game of the season. We started it the other way after that first, maybe, week-and-a-half of training camp when Mike and Tedy [Bruschi] were inside and then Mike and Junior were inside when Tedy was injured. So we've been playing that way all year."
With Seau now out for the season, Vrabel said he's ready to stay in that inside spot, admitting that the biggest challenge will be preparing like an inside linebacker again. Vrabel started inside last season for the team's final 11 games of the season.
"Having played most of the season outside, [the biggest challenge is] just going to be getting back to studying that position," said Vrabel. "When I study film, I had been looking at it outside. You know, you just step in and take care of your responsibility."
His 73 tackles this season currently ranks third on the team, and he's also recorded a sack, three quarterback hurries and a pass defensed. He said the biggest change for him will be seeing the defense from a different vantage point.
"I think the reads are a little different. You're looking at a different viewpoint. You're looking through the guard and center and full back, as opposed to the tackle and tight end. There's opportunities in there to make some plays, but you have to take care of your responsibility first."
Coach Belichick said earlier this week that the package the Patriots played in for the second half of the Bears game, which includes Tully Banta-Cain coming in as an outside linebacker, was one they've been working on in practice all season long.
"Tully's played a lot for us all year. He's played since the beginning of training camp and before Junior came and then when Tedy got hurt during training camp, Mike worked inside then," explained Belichick on Wednesday. "So Mike was inside for a good three, four weeks in training camp with a lot of those double practices. Tully and Rosey were the outside linebackers and then Mike moved back outside when Junior got here and then Tedy came back. Mike's been working there in practice. We've kind of had five to play four since maybe the second, third game of the season. We started it the other way after that first, maybe, week-and-a-half of training camp when Mike and Tedy were inside and then Mike and Junior were inside when Tedy was injured. So we've been playing that way all year."
When Banta-Cain comes in, Rosevelt Colvin shifts from the right outside linebacker position to the left, with Banta-Cain taking over on the right side.
"I'm just going out playing," Colvin said. "I mean the calls are pretty much the same. I don't think it's going to change anything for me."
Banta-Cain has recorded 18 tackles, 3.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries. He said he usually plays the right side when he rotates in on third downs, but agreed with Colvin that both sides are equally demanding.
"Somebody has to play on the left, somebody has to play on the right," said Banta-Cain on Thursday. "I think that if you just narrow it down to a guy being on one side, it makes it a lot easier as far as having to make a big adjustment based on how the formation is. You don't have to run over in each formation, you stay left and right. It's the same responsibility on both sides."
He's excited to see his playing time increase.
"It's a big opportunity for me. It's definitely something I'm excited about and I've been looking forward to getting an opportunity like this. It's tough that it had to be the way it is, but I'm going to try to seize it the best I can," said Banta-Cain.
Although Banta-Cain is typically used as a pass rusher on third-downs, he's confident that he's ready to take on a larger role.
"I think that one of my strengths is rushing the passer," he said. "I think that being in this defense - in the 3-4 defense - you have to be able to play the run as well as rush the passer. It might have been a concern in the past, whether or not I can play it, but I think that I've proven that I can do all those things well."
"Everybody is working to go out there and play," said Vrabel. "That's the idea. We do have young guys. When those opportunities get presented to them, they have to be able to step in and play, whether that's this week or next week. They're good young football players or they wouldn't be there. So that time comes maybe in their first year or, you know, in their third year."
Banta-Cain is the most likely starter now that Seau is out, but Eric Alexander and rookies Corey Mays and Pierre Woods are all waiting in the wings for their numbers to be called. Coach Belichick explained their position flexibility on Thursday.
"Eric's played inside and outside the last two years. So he would certainly have the most flexibility of that younger group of players, which I would definitely put him in that younger group even though he's more experienced than Corey and Pierre. Pierre's worked outside. Corey's worked inside. And as we know, most of their opportunities have come on special teams. I don't see Corey going outside or Pierre going inside at this point. We're just trying to get them to improve and continue to develop at the positions that they're in," he said.
Notes:The Patriots held practice outside on one of the upper practice fields at Gillette Stadium on Thursday. … The quarterbacks weren't wearing their red non-contact jerseys for the second day in a row. Coach Belichick said today that they asked not to wear them. "They asked about it, so I don't care," he said. "It's fine. It's good it doesn't separate anybody now." … The only players not seen during the portion of practice available to the media were rookie tackle Ryan O'Callaghan (Questionable with a neck injury) and safeties Rodney Harrison (Out with a shoulder injury) and Eugene Wilson (Questionable with a hamstring injury). … The only addition to today's injury report was receiver Chad Jackson, listed as Questionable with a groin injury.