FOXBOROUGH -- The wheels are in motion within the Patriots' linebacker corps.
After losing Junior Seau for the season because of a broken right arm, the team practiced for the first time yesterday and had the following look in its 3-4 defense: Mike Vrabel taking Seau's spot on the inside next to Tedy Bruschi, and Tully Banta-Cain lining up with Rosevelt Colvin on the outside. It was the same foursome that played most of the final three quarters of Sunday's 17-13 victory over the Bears.
The change marks the second year in a row that Vrabel, who also started this season's opener on the inside, could be called upon to make a long-term switch. Last year's change came in the sixth game of the season, which he believes is a benefit this time around.
"I think [it helps] a lot to have some game experience, to learn playing in there with Tedy," Vrabel said yesterday. "Even the first couple plays Sunday night were a little rusty, but then we kind of settled in and settled down, and I think we were fine."
One of those first few plays Sunday -- a 16-yard run by Cedric Benson up the middle -- highlighted the importance of having a defensive front seven that plays cohesively.
The Patriots had hit their stride with Seau in the lineup on early downs, effectively shutting down the run (83.2 yards per game, third in the NFL). But now the front seven of the 3-4 has to regroup with three linebackers occupying new spots -- Banta-Cain playing on the right side, Colvin the left, and Vrabel inside.
Naturally, Vrabel is one of the keys, and his position switch is more extreme than it might initially appear. At outside linebacker in the 3-4, he would regularly line up on the line of scrimmage and knock heads with tight ends and tackles, helping to force running plays inside while occasionally rushing the passer. Now he'll be inside, off the line, taking on guards and attempting to make sure the Patriots are strong in the middle of the field. He likely won't rush as much.
It's a change that few linebackers can make, and Vrabel's athleticism is a key attribute in helping him do so. When Patriots coach Bill Belichick reflected on players he has coached who could line up at both outside and inside linebacker, the list wasn't a long one, with Clay Matthews (Browns) and Carl Banks (Giants) two of the top names.
Matthews, now 50 and serving as defensive coordinator at Oaks Christian High School in Westlake Village, Calif., said he believes any change in the front seven is a big one because it affects run defense.
"Usually when you play good run defense, you take the running gaps and you break it down and assign it to people," he said. "The discipline of how well you can keep those gaps reflects how good you are as a run-defending team. The difference for Vrabel is that he is going to have some run gaps more to the inside than the outside. He's used to being disciplined and used to having certain responsibilities, so I don't think that concept is going to be a problem. But the look will be a little different."
That might be one reason the Patriots worked in full pads yesterday, giving Vrabel and the rest of the front seven a chance to see those looks at full speed. Vrabel indicated that he has previously spent some practice time on the inside this year, and echoed Matthews's view about the change.
"I think the reads are a little different; you're looking at a different viewpoint, through the guard, center, and fullback as opposed to the tackle and tight end," he said. "There are opportunities in there to make some plays, but you have to take care of your responsibility first."
As for responsibilities on the outside, this is Banta-Cain's time to shine after three years of waiting in the wings, a time in which he developed from a college defensive end to an outside linebacker, a common transition for players in the 3-4 alignment.
The four-year veteran has played in all 11 games this season, making his one career start in the opener. He has regularly been part of the Patriots' third-down package (3 1/2 sacks) and has a team-high 10 special teams tackles. The most significant change for Banta-Cain will be in the running game, as he hasn't consistently been on the field to set the edge and force plays to the inside.
Meanwhile, the team's other linebackers -- Pierre Woods (outside), Don Davis (inside), Eric Alexander (both), Corey Mays (inside), and Larry Izzo (inside) -- all get bumped up the depth chart one rung.
One other wrinkle to account for is the possibility that the Patriots switch to a 4-3, taking advantage of their personnel at defensive line.
But overall, Matthews has watched the Patriots from afar and doesn't foresee major problems if the team stays in the 3-4.
"They're very disciplined and know what they're doing, and team-wise they play defense as good as anybody," he said. "Generally, they find those players who are smart and responsible, and even if they don't come in a tight package all the time -- they might not be the fastest -- you can win with them and win consistently."
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.