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Steelers Super Bowl: Vrabel enjoys spoils of beating former teammates

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- On behalf of his parents, Mike Vrabel would like to thank all those Steelers fans who made travel plans to New Orleans for this week.

"My parents got flights for $100 because they waited for people to cancel their tickets from Pittsburgh," said Vrabel, wearing his blue Patriots No. 50 yesterday in the Superdome. "They're coming down later in the week on [US Airways].

"Sweet, man, sweet."

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One man's sweet is another's bad taste, which is what Vrabel's former teammates are experiencing these days. Vrabel, a backup linebacker for the Steelers the previous four seasons, joined the Patriots last year as an unrestricted free agent. He started 12 of 16 regular-season games and both playoff games at outside linebacker.

Vrabel said his old buddies wished him well against the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl. He also said he felt sorry for some of them. But some things left a sour, not sweet, taste in his mouth before and after the Patriots' 24-17 upset Sunday in the AFC championship game in Heinz Field.

He did not like the concession speech from quarterback Kordell Stewart, particularly the part when Stewart mentioned that the best team did not win.

"Just seeing the comments Kordell made, I think he could have probably done it a little better. That team didn't win the game. It's why you play the game."

Vrabel suggested that all the complaining about the Steelers' poor special teams play might be them looking for a scapegoat.

"They're going to look for a way out. I feel bad for Lee Flowers and all those guys. I played there for four years, I like those guys.

"The fact remains that we weren't supposed to win. We prepared like we were going to win and we went down and played a good game and won the football game. No excuses."

Vrabel was surprised at the reaction in Pittsburgh before the game Sunday.

"What about that city last week, man? In '97, I don't remember there being that much hype [before the AFC championship]. We just went out and played and we lost a close game to Denver. But, God, there was a lot of hype last week. We showed up, and just seeing everything in the paper and how people were reacting. ... With the Steelers, it was like they were buying into what everybody was saying."

Vrabel insisted New England Coach Bill Belichick did not talk to the Patriots' players about making Super Bowl plans last week, the way the Steelers did. He used his parents' waiting to make plane reservations as an example.

"There was no planning made on any part of the team for the players whatsoever," Vrabel said. "Our planning was to go down on Saturday to Pittsburgh. It wasn't flights, hotel. We got a [Super Bowl] packet on the plane going home. We didn't hear a word.

"Our planning was for Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh only."

Luck, he said, had nothing to do with their victory in Heinz Field. For example, the Patriots prepared for the possibility of not only a blocked field goal, but also to return the block for a touchdown. Every Friday, Belichick sends the field-goal blocking team onto the practice field. Kicker Adam Vinatieri, with no offensive line, would boot the ball into the defense so it could be blocked and the players practice picking up the ball on the run.

"Wherever the ball goes, the guy will go scoop it up," Vrabel said. "Same thing with the fake field goal and the pooch punt. We do that. It's like 'this is a waste,' but it's how we end practice. That's once a week. You can't foresee things happening that way, a blocked kick."

The Patriots might never pull off the play again, but it got them to the Super Bowl. Brandon Mitchell blocked Kris Brown's 34-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter. Troy Brown, just as in Friday practice sessions, scooped up the ball on the run at the 40, pitched the ball to Antwan Harris at the Steelers' 49. No one came close to him on way to a touchdown. It staked the Patriots to a 21-3 lead and a claim to the AFC championship.

"No, we didn't practice that way in Pittsburgh," Vrabel said. "Just because it came up and we practiced it doesn't mean the guys in Pittsburgh aren't doing their job."

Don't mention that to Flowers or many other Steelers who have been complaining since Sunday about their special teams play. Vrabel and many other New England starters do double-duty on special teams, which is why Troy Brown was able to scoop up the blocked kick.

"We have linebackers like [Roman] Phifer, Vrabel, Ted Bruschi, Ted Johnson," Belichick said, "Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, guys like that in our secondary, on coverage teams and return teams. We have a lot of starters who participate on those teams and they contribute."

That contrasts with the Steelers' philosophy, where rookie linebacker Kendrell Bell, one of the best special teams players in the country at the University of Georgia, played exclusively on defense on first and second downs.

It might be a small thing, like practicing to scoop up blocked field-goal kicks every Friday, but it might be why the Patriots are here this week. And the Super Bowl is no small thing.

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