Warren works hard to become one of league's best

Having missed two days of practice this week because he flew home to Bryan, Texas, to minister to his ailing mother, New England Patriots defensive end Ty Warren was back at work Thursday night, putting in a little overtime and trying to make up for lost time.

On the agenda: Some weightlifting. A couple of hours of viewing videotape of recent matchups with the Indianapolis Colts, the opponent in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. Some time to review the game plan, and then a stint on the StairMaster.

"The good thing," Warren said by phone, as he neared the end of a long evening, "is that, because we're playing the Colts and we've played them so often, they're familiar to us. But you still never want to miss [preparation] time. I mean, I feel like I'm just playing catch-up now, you know?"

Ironic because this is a season in which Warren, a four-year veteran and former first-round pick, has not only caught up to, but actually surpassed most NFL players at his position.

Appearing in all but one game -- the first time the former Texas A&M star had not played the entire 16-game schedule -- Warren notched career bests in tackles (84), sacks (7½) and passes defensed (four). From his left end spot in the Patriots' familiar 3-4 alignment, Warren helped re-establish the New England defensive line as one of the NFL's premier units.

No, he didn't move out of the silhouette of teammate Richard Seymour, and probably never will. Warren did, though, force the New England right end's imposing shadow to recede some as he emerged as a top-shelf 3-4 end.

"Definitely, this was my best season," Warren said. "I really think, from a two-way standpoint, playing the run and rushing the quarterback, it came together for me. I feel good about the way things went this year."

Opponents in the AFC East shouldn't feel too good about the fact that Warren is only 25 years old, has 51 starts on his résumé, is beginning to realize just how good he can be, and figures to grow into a real monster. Or that Seymour and mammoth nose tackle Vince Wilfork, also former first-round draft choices, are just now moving into the prime seasons of their careers.

Certainly Warren and Seymour comprise a unique tandem, a pair of stout 3-4 ends who can control the perimeter with size, but have enough speed to out-quick most guards when they move inside on those occasions when the Pats morph into a four-man front.

The term "hybrid" defender was all but coined in New England because of the Pats' deployment in the 3-4 and the fact that the team's linebackers had such diverse responsibilities. But Warren and Seymour have become hybrid defensive linemen, equal parts end and tackle and quite capable of dominating from either position.

"There just aren't many guys in the league like them," Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday said. "A lot of 3-4 ends, they play two downs, come off the field on third-and-long, and linebackers move up to rush the passer. These guys, on third down, can sink down inside [in a four-man front] and cause all kinds of problems."

In fact, in much of the Nov. 5 regular-season meeting with the Colts, Warren played at the tackle spot, registering nine tackles. It is part of the beauty of what the Pats do, part of the genius of coach Bill Belichick and vice president of personnel Scott Pioli, that they located not just one, but two defensive linemen like Seymour and Warren.

Most scouts projected Warren, who is 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, as a tackle in the 2003 draft. But he was the perfect fit for how New England likes to play, and the Patriots snatched him with the 13th overall selection. Over his past three seasons as a starter, Warren has 200 tackles, which would lead all interior linemen over that stretch. This season, his 84 tackles and 7½ sacks were the most in the NFL among 3-4 ends.

The sack total was especially gratifying for Warren, who had just six sacks combined in his first three seasons in the league.

He worked much of the offseason with defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, streamlining his too-ambitious repertoire of pass-rush techniques, and simply trying to improve his rip move and an inside counter maneuver. The investment has paid off nicely.

"You don't have to do a lot of things," Warren said. "Just do them well. Sometimes, you know, simpler is better. You watch [Baltimore] defensive end Trevor Pryce rush the quarterback, [and] it's the same rip move all the time. But he's perfected it to the point where, even though people know it's coming, they still can't stop him."

Warren isn't to that point yet in his development, but he's definitely on the fast track, even if he arguably remains the most anonymous of the Patriots' three standout defensive linemen.

He just figures that if you put in the extra time, as Warren did on Thursday night in his grueling cram session, recognition will come.

"This is a team where, if you do the little things, the big stuff will come to you," Warren said. "We're a team that puts in time in the classroom, and prepares hard, because we want things to be like they're second nature to us."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.