Edelman’s punt return TD caps a night of versatility

Doug Farrar

If there's one thing Bill Belichick likes in his non-superstar players more than anything else, it's the ability to do more than one thing at a reasonably high level. That's why he used to flex linebacker Mike Vrabel out as a red zone tight end, and why he had receiver Troy Brown playing cornerback on a Super Bowl team. The latest subject of Belichick's football experiments is receiver Julian Edelman, the former Kent State quarterback who was selected in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft.

Projected as a receiver and special teamer after breaking many of Josh Cribbs' total-yardage records in college, Edelman has indeed become a reliable receiver and return threat, as he exhibited on a 72-yard punt return in the third quarter of the Patriots' 34-3 decimation of the Kansas City Chiefs on "Monday Night Football."

"We held the gunners and our internal guys did a good job blocking their players," Edelman said after the game. "As a punt returner, you have to make someone miss and then get back to your return side, so we executed the play really well."

So, that was impressive ... but the real story of Edelman's night was the fact that he was lined up at cornerback for part of the game. He had first done that against the New York Jets earlier in the month, playing slot corner and tackling LaDainian Tomlinson. Injuries to New England's secondary have forced Belichick to do all kinds of interesting things (like yo-yoing safety Ross Ventrone back and forth from the practice squad about 500 different times this season), and Edelman's participation was just one more way for Belichick to get past the personnel difficulties that have his defense in an atypically bad spot.

"It's definitely a new experience, but like I said, whatever coach [Belichick] asks me to do, I'm going to go out there and try and do it," Edelman said.

Linebacker Rob Ninkovich likes what he saw of his new defensive teammate. "I loved him out there running around. He had a great punt return and it's great to see him playing on defense. [Edelman] is a great athlete. He was a quarterback in college and came here as a receiver. He's playing defense now and returning punts. With some of the things that have happened in the secondary, with guys going down and others having to step up, he's done a great job in taking that role and going out there to do the best he can."

In a general sense, Edelman has impressed his usually unflappable coach. "Well, he's learning how to play defense," Belichick said of Edelman after the game. "He's got a long way to go, but he's working hard, he's getting reps and he's getting better at it. We've been talking about the return game for quite a while. I feel like we've been close to breaking off a big play — one block away or one better hold-up or just one thing, and we got it today. Our punt return team has been doing a good job. They've been working hard, we've been close, and it was satisfying for them and for all of us, really, for that to happen, because I do feel like we've been close. I feel like we've been close on the kickoff returns. We didn't have much to show for [kickoff returns] tonight, but I do think that's getting better and hopefully we're close to breaking a big one there, too.

"Those guys work had and Julian has worked hard trying to make it happen. Sometimes you get frustrated because you're just a step away or you get a bad kick when you get good blocking or you get a good kick and miss a block, or whatever it is. But today it came together. He broke a couple of tackles and we kind of had them sealed off there. It was a big play in the game, I think it really — I don't want to say put it out of reach — but it certainly put a big gap in the game."

The Patriots are now 7-3, warts and all, and they've got a good bead on the one-seed in the AFC. It would be atypical of any other team, but these Patriots may resemble the old-school "Why not us?" creations of the early 2000s more than the talent-rich relative disappointments of recent years.