Whether on offense or defense, Julian Edelman is always looking for the ball. (Getty Images)
New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman certainly isn't the first at his position in the NFL — or even in his own franchise's history — to double up reps by catching passes on offense and defending against passes on the other side. But with his dual role increasing over the season, and the New York Giants expecting to see him a fair bit when they run their three- and four-receiver sets, and the percentage of snaps in which Edelman will line up as an outside or slot pass defender, it's a pretty big story.
Giants receiver Mario Manningham started the festivities last week, when he dismissed Edelman's defensive efforts out of hand. "I hope he's out there when we play them," Manningham told the Boston Herald. "To our advantage, I hope he's out there … It's a different stage. This ain't regular season. That ain't your real position, so we're going to try to expose you. It's all or nothing now. That ain't your position. This is the Super Bowl and we want you to play that position."
Asked about this on media day, Edelman gave the total and typical answer one would expect from a player coached by Bill Belichick. "I am not really worried about what Mario Manningham is saying right now. I am more focused on doing my job, and that is preparing right now. We will see if that opportunity comes ahead of us in the game."
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Manningham, no doubt prompted by a Giants franchise looking to avoid any bulletin board material, attempted to clarify his comments a few hours after Edelman's response.
"I respect him as a player," Manningham said. "I understand that he's a good player. He plays wide receiver and defensive back. I don't take anything from him but he plays offense. So I know he's a competitive player, but I'm going to try to win. No matter who lines up in front of me, I'm going to try to win.
"We want to go out and do what we have to do to win. No matter what it takes. He plays wide receiver. He's not a real defensive back. Did he get drafted as a defensive back? We have a little bond going on knowing that we can beat somebody. We're confident. I hope he's out there."
Giants slot receiver Victor Cruz concurred — whenever Edelman is out there, he'll be a target. "I see he's very raw at that position, obviously, because it's not his dominant position, but he's quick, he's fast, and he carries a lot of the receiver stuff over to [cornerback], so we'll see how it goes. Obviously, it's going to be a position and an area that we'll test out really early and see how it goes and how the game flows."
That confidence is understandable, given the Giants' explosive passing game. But in New York's 24-20 Week 9 win over the Patriots, Eli Manning didn't do so well when the Pats went with nickel and dime sets — the formations Edelman would be likely to see. According to Football Outsiders' game-charting information, Manning threw nine passes of his 39 total attempts against five and six defensive backs. He completed just three of those passes for 24 yards. You can bet that the Patriots' coaching staff has that information on lock, and that there will be more of Edelman and other ancillary defensive backs on the field.
In a way, Edelman is the ultimate Belichick player — through his time as the Patriots head man, Belichick has always insisted on having players who can do many things. From Troy Brown starting the receiver/DB bandwagon Edelman is now riding, to tight end Aaron Hernandez making plays as an offset fullback, to linebacker Mike Vrabel catching touchdown passes as an eligible tight end, versatility has always been a big part of Belichick's football philosophy. Edelman was a quarterback at Kent State, so Belichick had to see another position in the young player from the start.
"We saw Edelman as a good athlete," Belichick said on Wednesday. "You could see Julian was tough and quick. He made a lot of plays. I wouldn't say he had an inordinate amount of blocking in front of him. At times, he was kind of on his own against two or three guys running the dive option and things like that. We really didn't think he was a quarterback prospect, but we thought he was tough, quick, good with the ball in his hands and a guy who had a real good desire to learn and improve. We thought he could be a punt returner, kickoff returner, wide receiver and slot receiver. That's where he started off."
"It was a big transition for Julian, going from being a quarterback to playing a receiver position and also returning kicks, which he hadn't really done before. [Special teams coach] Scott O'Brien really worked with him in the return game as well as the coverage game, kickoff coverage, things like that. Chad O'Shea, our receivers coach, spent a lot of time with him as a slot receiver, and he expanded that role to where he plays on the outside some because Wes Welker gets so many plays in the slot. We got into some injury situations, and his skill set as a slot receiver carried over to the same skill set that we look for in our slot corners, so we started to use him some there in 1-on-1 after practice. He has a knack for it, he picked it up quickly.
The switch to cornerback happened early in the 2011 season, and ramped up after injuries to cornerback Devin McCourty and safety Patrick Chung made the Pats' iffy pass defense even more questionable. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in November, Edelman responded by hitting quarterback Vince Young on a blitz, causing an incomplete pass. He later stopped Young from scoring on a bootleg.
On Wednesday (actually, pretty much every day -- the Super Bowl media sessions are marked primarily by the same questions being asked over and over again), Edelman remembered the first time he was told of the switch.
"It kind of just came up and [the coaches] said, 'You are going to be in a defensive meeting today,'" he remembered. "You are not going to say 'no' to an opportunity, so I went with it."
The fine points of defensive back play are still elusive to Edelman as a fill-in player, but he's getting the hang of the overall concept. "I am not going to go out there and try to flood my mind with all of the techniques and everything, because that will just slow you down and not let you react. I just kind of go out there. Of course I watch the film of my practices and everything, and I will go out there and watch some film on Ronde Barber, Charles Woodson and some of the better inside corners. You just watch what they do. More importantly, I just watch what the other team does. I try to prepare for any kind of recognition."
Troy Brown likes what he's seen from the man who took his place as the Pats' ultimate two-way player. "Julian is not afraid to get up there and mix it up and be physical with guys,'' Brown told the New York Post on Wednesday. "He's just one of those guys that you watch play and say, 'He's just a football player.' Julian is a competitor, and I don't know that the Giants know that about him. He has to go up against probably the best slot receiver in the game every day in practice in Wes Welker. He'll be ready for the Giants. He won't back down.''
Belichick has no doubt. "Julian will be ready to go on everything as he always is," the coach said of the Super Bowl game plan for Edelman, who is also a standout special teams player. "Based on the game plan, and how it goes, we'll see how that all turns out. He will be ready for all three phases."
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