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Vilma Gains in Fluency


Vilma with swagger after a great play

Two thousand six was a season of growth for Jonathan Vilma.

It didn't always appear to be. Some key metrics in Vilma's third season as a Jet -- tackles, tackles behind the line, forced fumbles -- were down from his impactful 2005. Fans and media attributed it to his transition from 4-3 middle linebacker to 3-4 inside linebacker and had a variety of drastic remedies.

Through it all, Vilma remained on message and unruffled. Before the Green Bay game, he said learning the 3-4 was like learning a new language, and he should know, since he can speak three of them.

And Vilma has told that he felt he and his unit had moved onto the next Berlitz tape by the end of the year.

"I finished at about a 4," he said in the days before he and his teammates report Monday for the start of the off-season strength and conditioning program, their second under coach Eric Mangini and their first under new strength coach Sal Alosi. "I think things were falling into place for our defense and our team. We knew what the next person was going to do so it made it easier."

Vilma is reminiscent of a young Curtis Martin -- not by position, of course, but by personality. He is a top-notch talent. He is his own worst critic. And he never gets caught up in the hype.

Neither do coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. Mangini likened Vilma's progress to that of New England's still redoubtable Tedy Bruschi, who made a similar position switch when Mangini first worked with the Patriots' defensive players at the turn of this century.

"When Tedy made the transition back in 2000, I don't think you would've said, 'Wow, what an impact year he had. But yet he impacted the defense substantially during that period. It's one of those things where as you understand it and you get the reps and you start to see the plays develop and then you start to put your style within the system, and that's where you'll see the development and the progress."

"One of the things I believe," Sutton said, "is that, when you are a good football player, you're a good football player. Having had Jonathan my first two years here [as linebackers coach], I can tell you, not only is he a talented guy, but when we first visited him and we were thinking about drafting him, he really impressed us with his preparation at Miami. How he got ready for an opponent was really impressive. He had it down to a science."

Vilma showed the science part of his course load quite a bit throughout the season. Playing the Texans in Game 11 was a case in point. Before one snap, Vilma swatted nose tackle Dewayne Robertson over from zero-technique (head-up on the center) to one-technique (shading the center's shoulder) -- Robertson made the play. A few plays later, he repositioned Brad Kassell to a different blitz gap -- Kassell rejected a David Carr pass in the backfield.

"I'm still 'The General' out there," Vilma said with a laugh, "still getting them lined up."

"You need someone who can not only direct traffic but who has the final say," Mangini said. "Jon usually has the final say, and he's usually right."

And he continued to make plays. He returned one of Kerry Rhodes' strip sacks in Game 3 into Bills territory and had an interception vs. Detroit. And he made sure there would be no Miami candy canes on Christmas night when, on the last play of the first half, he took down Sammy Morris on a flat pass and forced a fumble (which wasn't initially credited to Vilma but was awarded later).

The production was not what Vilma wanted. But he's back up from his South Florida home to start the process all over.

"I came down to Miami to soak up some sun and relax. Physically, you're always going to be OK, but mentally you need to get some rest away from the team."

Vilma knows what the expectations will be like for him, his defense and his team again this year. And he captured his mindset late in the season about mastering his next language.

"There's only frustration because I want to be the best I can be," he said. "I'm a perfectionist. I want to be great at what I'm doing. The 3-4, definitely, this right here is my life. I've got to get it right."

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