FOXBOROUGH — As Julian Edelman lined up inside the Patriots’ 25-yard-line during the second quarter last Sunday, a perfect storm of factors would soon come swirling together, springing the shifty receiver on a 38-yard punt return, his longest of the season.
Start with the scouting. Edelman knew, through film study, in which direction Jets punter Ryan Quigley likes to kick, so he positioned himself accordingly, accounting also for the line of scrimmage and what the wind was doing.
Quigley’s kick was short — he was credited with a 37-yard punt — which allowed Edelman to catch it on the run. Marquice Cole and Logan Ryan were assigned to Jets gunners Ellis Lankster and Isaiah Trufant, and didn’t need any help, leaving eight other Patriots to block the eight other Jets (not counting Quigley) looking to take down Edelman.
Cole and Ryan obstructed Lankster and Trufant enough so that Edelman had time and space after catching the punt at the 33-yard line. Edelman made the first Jet miss — linebacker Ricky Sapp, who came charging down the middle of the field — put a move on Trufant by darting left, put another move on Lankster after coming to a split-second stop and hopping left and slightly back, then got past Demario Davis by continuing left to reach the open field.
Now at the Patriots’ 40-yard line and cradling the ball in his left hand, Edelman received strong blocks from Nate Ebner, Chris White, Matthew Slater, and Duron Harmon, who kept every would-be tackler at a safe distance. Running toward the Jets sideline, Edelman crossed midfield, turned the corner past Slater (who was blocking Jaiquawn Jarrett), and hit full speed. He chose to go out of bounds just as Josh Cribbs and Garrett McIntyre fell down after bumping into each other while giving chase.
Edelman stayed on his feet, and was moving so fast that he might have been given 2 extra yards, because it looked like he went out of bounds at the Jets’ 30-yard line, but was marked at the 28 — 1 yard beyond where Tanner Purdum had snapped the ball to Quigley, 16 seconds earlier.
The only time Edelman was touched during the return was when Lankster reached for him with his right arm. It was a desperate, unsuccessful attempt.
With the 38-yard gain, Edelman once again joined a pair of 1950s players in a tie for first place on the NFL’s all-time list for highest career punt return average, at 12.8. Not bad for someone who played quarterback in college.
Edelman has been the Patriots’ best receiver this season, catching 46 passes (already a career high) through seven games. But his value to the Patriots as a returner has been just as high.
“I feel very fortunate to have played with some good returners in my time, and I feel like our guy is one of the best. I don’t have a problem saying that,” said Slater, the Patriots’ special teams captain. “You’ve got to be fearless, and all of them have had that little swagger to them, where they want to go out and make a play. This young man, since he’s got here, has done a great job of that. He really makes us go.”
Edelman routinely redirects any individual praise to the entire punt return unit. And while the performance of the 10 teammates in front of Edelman has a profound impact on what he can do — “You could have Gale Sayers back there and if they can’t get going, it’s hard to make anything happen,” coach Bill Belichick said — the punt returner often must make snap decisions while looking up at the ball, and not at the oncoming players intent on knocking it loose.
Edelman agreed to share his approach to the task in an interview with the Globe after Wednesday’s practice.
“As far as returning the punt, it all depends on the trajectory and the turn of the ball. You know by the trajectory if you’re going to get a return off, catching it, depending on the blocking you have and the scheme you have going into that week,” Edelman said. “If it’s a shorter punt, you have speed going into the punt return, the coverage isn’t down as fast, and that’s usually when you can get big returns. If they’re deeper and they outkick the coverage, and you have a 20-yard cushion, that’s when you have to set your blocks up, dictate where you want those guys to go, or just read it out.”
Does he ever take his eyes off the ball after it’s been kicked?
“You can tell at the high point where it’s going to land. If it’s a high punt but it’s not very far, you can take a glance, a quick picture, and then you can kind of see with your peripheral vision who’s maintaining blocks and where the guys are coming from,” Edelman said. “You also use the hashes. If you’re pinned to the sidelines, instead of looking down, you just look with your peripheral vision and you’ll see the hashes, depending on if you can get the ball instead of fair catching it, going out of bounds, or if you’ll have a chance to return it.”
Edelman credits special teams coach Scott O’Brien with helping convert him into a punt returner. They spend time almost every day working on sideline drills, when to take a chance, playing the first bounce on a shanked punt, fair catching when necessary (which Edelman hates). That usually happens when an opposing team is kicking from near midfield and looking for a high punt it can down deep in Patriots’ territory.
One could argue that Edelman has always been a natural at returning punts: On his first return in his first preseason game as a rookie, Edelman brought it back 75 yards for a touchdown against the Eagles.
Three more punt return touchdowns have followed in the regular season, one in each of the last three years: a 94-yarder in 2010, a 72-yarder in 2011, and a 68-yarder in 2012. Edelman’s worst punt return average for a season has been 10.5, as a rookie in 2009. He’s averaging 11.6 yards on 21 returns this season.
“Julian has done a good job for us, but I do think it’s a two-part thing,” Belichick said. “The big part of it for the punt return team is to get the play started.
“The returner has an awful lot of responsibility on the play: which balls to catch, which ones to let go, which ones to fair catch. As it gets inside your 10-, 15-yard line, down in that area, that even becomes more critical. Then after that, it’s to be able to create some type of plays on his own, whether it’s with speed, quickness, vision, breaking tackles, whatever it happens to be. Julian does a good job of all those.”
The biggest key for a good return, Edelman said, is not letting the opposing gunners get a clean shot at him. That makes the job of those opposite the gunners not only challenging, but vital. Since gunners have speed, the Patriots have mainly put defensive backs against them: Cole, Ryan, Harmon, Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty.
“The No. 1 thing is keeping the gunners out of that guy’s face once he catches the ball,” said Cole, who used to be a punt returner, averaging 13.8 yards per return at Northwestern, including an 81-yard touchdown. “You’ve got one of your best athletes back there returning, so once they get the ball in their hands, and they’re a couple yards free, they pretty much do the rest. Especially Jules, as electrifying as he is, with all the shakes and jukes and moves that dude’s got in his repertoire.”
Having that dude behind him serves as motivation, according to Slater.
“When you have a guy back there that you know can make a play, it gives you a little extra incentive to block and work for him,” Slater said. “As blockers, you’ve got to have the mentality of not letting your guy make the play. Once you lock in with your guy, it comes down to effort. A lot of it is want-to, and I think we have guys here who take a lot of pride in what we do.”
The 38-yard punt return by Edelman against the Jets last Sunday gave the Patriots what they were looking for: a short field, which led to a touchdown. A great punt return is a play that can help a struggling offense, change momentum, ignite a rally.
Rarely is a long return expected, but under the right circumstances — line of scrimmage, coverage scheme, conditions — Edelman can smell one coming. He’ll adjust his red gloves, jump twice, then wait for the kick.
“Every time we’ve had a big return there’s always been a spring block, there’s always guys doing their job,” Edelman said. “Their job is to hold their guy, and my job is to advance the ball forward as much as we can, make someone miss hopefully, and put the offense in good field position.
“I have fun doing it. I love doing it.”