NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The punt return is an overlooked intermediary. It symbolizes the end of one offensive drive and the beginning of another. It is an exchange of possession that leaves one man fielding a fly ball against tacklers with a 50-yard head start.
And for New England Patriots wide receiver and return man Julian Edelman, it is an art.
With 1,242 yards on 98 career attempts, the 2009 seventh-round draft pick out of Kent State finds himself fifth all-time and first among active NFL players with a 12.7 return average. Edelman has cracked off gains of 68, 72 and 94 yards over the last four seasons on his way to three touchdowns.
Yet what’s lost in those numbers is what it takes to attain them.
It takes all 11 players to break one.
Versus the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9, the 27-year-old Edelman – and the special-teamers ahead of him – did just that.
With 38 seconds remaining in the third quarter of the Nov. 3 tilt at Gillette Stadium, the Steelers, down 27-24, sent out Mat McBriar to punt from the 35-yard line.
Concurrently, New England bunched two-time All-Pro captain Matthew Slater, safeties Tavon Wilson and rookie Duron Harmon, as well as rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan on the personal protector’s side of the line. Safety Nate Ebner hovered over long snapper Greg Warren. And to his right stood linebackers Dane Fletcher, Chris White and rookie Jamie Collins.
The alignment looked traditional at first, with cornerback gunners Marquice Cole and Logan Ryan manning the outskirts. Though, as the Steelers soon acknowledged, the alignment was not in its final state.
Patriots special teams coach Scott O’Brien motioned Cole and Ryan to the edges in a delayed punt block. The alteration moved Wilson off the line and transferred Harmon to the linebacker side, where Collins swapped with Ryan.
And with that, Pittsburgh was forced to consolidate in punt-block protection. The response vacated the sideline boundaries.
Warren snapped to McBriar as Buchanan, Ebner and Wilson crashed through the inside gap. Synchronously, Fletcher and White occupied the left guard and tackle. And Cole, Slater, Harmon and Ryan jammed the opposing gunners at the point of attack.
The interior rush and outside press delayed Pittsburgh’s developments downfield, where Edelman awaited.
McBriar handled the football and stepped in to deliver the punt. Yet by that juncture, New England had created a three-man wall of linebackers outside the hashes and a disruptive collection of absorbers on the hashes.
Five yards up the field, rookie safety and gunner Shamarko Thomas encountered a bracket of Harmon and Ryan. On the other end, wing tight end David Paulson and cornerback gunner Antwon Blake were able to dislodge from Slater and Cole, arcing into the second level.
McBriar got the punt off unharmed, although all 10 of his teammates were still within 10 yards at the time of launch.
Of those 10, only three were away from immediate contact: the protector – No. 21 Robert Golden – and Paulson and Blake.
The punt soared through the air for 50 yards, affording Pittsburgh’s inside protection with a chance to free. With that being said, Slater, Cole and Wilson had tabs kept on their respective targets, and Harmon and Ryan had the opposite numbers clogged.
Edelman loomed at the New England 21, tracking the football with three potential routes ahead of him.
The fifth-year pro reeled the punt in at the 23, and by then, his access roads were clearer. He saw three Steelers circulating the right side of the hashes, four sprinting straight down the middle, and three others fighting fought off blocks out left.
Edelman elected the first option.
Edelman tucked the ball and ran directly at Warren and linebacker Jason Worilds. In doing so, he manipulated the two nearest Steelers into chopping their strides for better open-field positioning.
Those chopped strides proved to be pivotal, as Edelman’s balance allowed him to maintain speed and angle outward. With that subtlety, Worilds and Warren found themselves facing the 5’10”, 198-pounders left shoulder as he swung right.
He swung right in the direction of two more Steelers – tight end Michael Palmer and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester – who were in the blocking vicinity of Collins, Buchanan and White.
Closing in on that grouping, Edelman made another cut. He planted his right foot diagonal to his propelled direction, tripping up the two-on-three battle at the numbers.
That alleviation gave Edelman an opportunity to set his sights 25 yards ahead.
McBriar was his in crosshairs. If he could bypass the line of defense, he could reach on his intended destination.
Edelman accelerated through the runway that both he and his teammates created. He sought to buy real estate behind the trio of Collins, Buchanan and White.
Edelman did, utilizing his set-up blocks to swerve across the 40 and beyond the outstretched fingertips of diving linebacker Terrance Garvin.
He stayed low and leaned back towards midfield in attempt to beat the footwork of McBriar.
McBriar established the outskirts and could not halt Edelman. Nevertheless, he managed to change the returner’s course and keep Blake within shouting distance.
As Edelman passed the Pittsburgh 45-yard line, Blake was able to wrap an arm around his shoulder pads. The brush hobbled Edelman’s pace, but a last-second leap by Slater knocked him out of the tackle.
Edelman bounced forward for another 10 yards before Worilds zeroed in for a touchdown-saving stop.
Edelman’s run-back did not go the distance. It did, however, go 43 yards and send the Patriots offense on the field at Pittsburgh’s own 34.
Five plays later, quarterback Tom Brady connected with rookie wideout Aaron Dobson for a 17-yard TD. That marked a 10-point lead for New England. It was a differential the Patriots would ultimately expand upon, winning decidedly, 55-31.
New England’s final surge was sparked on special teams. It was sparked from Edelman’s vision, footwork and agility, just as much as it was sparked from the collective strength around him.
Now the Patriots punt-return unit may not garner the same credit that Edelman garners, but the success of the two entities is not mutually exclusive, as head coach Bill Belichick noted in an Oct. 22 conference call:
“Julian has done a good job for us but I do think it’s a two-part thing,” said Belichick. “The big part of it for the punt return team is to get the play started.”
One is set up by 10.