HOUSTON -- When Mike Vrabel joined the Houston Texans coaching staff in 2014, he inherited a linebacker with a lot of talent who hadn’t figured out how to be consistent in the NFL.
Whitney Mercilus, the Texans’ first-round pick in 2012, had shown promise in his first two seasons in Wade Phillips’ defense. Then, Bill O’Brien was hired as Texans coach in 2014 and he hired Vrabel to coach linebackers.
Vrabel will be on the other sideline in his second season as coach of the Tennessee Titans when the teams play for first place in the AFC South on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
“My first two years, I would show flashes,” Mercilus said. "I didn’t really understand the game much as far as looking at what a formational set might be, personnel, things of that nature. It was more of a ‘see the ball, go get the ball’ type of mentality. And so once [Vrabel] got here, more responsibilities were on the linebackers."
In 2015, a year after the new coaching staff took over, Mercilus had the best season of his career. In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Mercilus led the team with a combined 19.5 sacks.
Mercilus is now in the final year of the contract extension he signed in 2015. He got off to a fast start, with five sacks, an interception and four forced fumbles in his first four games, but his production slowed, especially after the season-ending injury to J.J. Watt, who commanded a lot of attention from opposing blockers.
“I really enjoyed coaching Whitney,” Vrabel said. “He wanted to learn, he wanted to be a great player, and he has. It was fun to be able to help him improve, and I take great satisfaction from that. Now, we’ll have to try to find ways to block him.”
Because Vrabel played for so long -- he spent 14 seasons at linebacker with the Patriots, Steelers and Chiefs -- he can relate well to players. His passion on the field and in the meeting rooms stood out, and linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who was drafted by Houston in 2015, said Vrabel understood his players and acted as a “father figure to him.”
McKinney said Vrabel's style was “very aggressive.”
“He knew how to get players going,” McKinney said. “He knew how to trigger me for me to play at my best.”
Mercilus described Vrabel’s coaching style as “feisty.”
“Whether he’s m-----f---ing somebody or something like that, that’s really what I remember,” Mercilus said. “Not in a bad way, but it just goes back to what I said: He’s a very passionate person, and he wants nothing but the best for his players.”
During training camp before the 2014 season, Vrabel pushed Mercilus to understand the game better by learning playcalls, adjustments, what the offenses were doing, what their personnel sets were and what plays they were running. In the classroom and on the field, Mercilus said, Vrabel made him understand “how to do my job well.”
“[Vrabel] really applied pressure to where I now became the player I am today,” Mercilus said.
“He showed him tough love,” Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. “When [Vrabel] came in, [Mercilus] was a top pass-rusher coming out of college. He won that award, [the Ted Hendricks Award, given to the top defensive end in college football], and he made some flash plays here and there, but I think he was a little inconsistent at times. And I think [Vrabel] challenged him each and every day on the practice field.
“Whit, he took it personally, and stayed out there in the weight room, went on the practice field, and he turned himself into the player he is today. Vrabel put that challenge out there, and I think he accepted it.”