Julian Edelman was right back in his comfort zone — taking defenders out of theirs.
In the slot to Tom Brady’s left, Edelman got a clean break off the snap and took a few quick steps punctuated by a little hop, before turning and grabbing a Brady dart on the first play from scrimmage in the Oct. 4 win over the Colts.
It was a classic Edelman play that produced 9 yards and countless smiles across New England. Perhaps none bigger than the one by Rob Ninkovich.
The versatile defensive end and longtime Edelman teammate is no longer on the Patriots’ roster but proved he’s still ready for some football. Ninkovich, 34, spent the last month-plus working out — and beating on — Edelman to try to keep the receiver sharp during his four-game suspension.
“His last meaningful game was basically my last meaningful game — Super Bowl LI. And seeing him going down last year with [the torn ACL], I’ve had that same injury and that really stinks,” Ninkovich said. “For him to go out there and catch a few balls, I was very happy for him.’’
As part of their routine, Ninkovich would strap on the pads and literally give Edelman a hard time. Jamming him at the line, shadowing him on routes, trying to rip balls out of his hands, and acting as a general nuisance for his friend.
“I can’t give him a look as a DB but I can give him linebacker looks and let him run his routes and try and pull the ball out or even run blocking — a little bit of that. I mean, he’s never going to have to block a guy that’s 260 pounds,’’ said Ninkovich, who would chide Edelman with “Squeeze it, squeeze it,” or “Focus, focus,’’ on every dropped ball.
By all accounts, Ninkovich was the perfect playing partner.
“Ninko’s always got it,’’ said Edelman. “It helped me a lot, so that was good. I really feel like we took advantage of the time that I had.’’
It certainly got Ninkovich’s juices flowing.
“It felt cool. It felt good to put some pads on and hit a little bit. It was fun,’’ he said. “I was joking with my wife because I said, ‘I feel faster now!’ I’m probably a little bit faster now, which is a little odd, but it’s probably from not having the grind of football.’’
Edelman’s return was tarnished only by one wide-open drop, and Ninkovich acknowledged he silently yelled, “You gotta focus up!” when it happened.
“He probably went out and caught 100 extra balls from the JUGS machine this week because of that drop,” Ninkovich said. “He’s such a perfectionist.’’
Edelman made no secret that he was unhappy with his conditioning level during training camp as he came off a season lost to an ACL tear. On multiple occasions he stated he still hadn’t gotten his “football legs” underneath him and it was causing timing problems.
There were not such complaints after his performance against the Colts. He looked very much like the guy NFL observers have been watching for years. He collected seven passes on nine targets for 57 yards. He also returned a pair of punts, including a vintage Edelman 15-yarder where he swerved his way through the coverage.
“I feel like my conditioning has been pretty good. You’re always working to get it better,’’ Edelman said. “Going against Ninkovich helped me a lot.”
The Ninkovich workouts took place on various fields and facilities throughout Greater Boston and were just part of the routine for Edelman, who also did some sweating at the Celtics’ new practice facility.
Edelman said he appreciated all the help he received from “all these people and these organizations and places,’’ but he clearly is a man happy to be back to his normal in-season routine.
His return not only has an affect on the team’s performance on the field, where he commands attention whether he’s the top option or not, but also behind the scenes.
“Jules works really hard,’’ said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “His preparation is important to him. I think he’s a good example for younger players and any player in general, in terms of how he goes about his business each week and prepares for the opponents he’s going to be lined up against, the defense he’s going to be facing.’’
With 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes poised to lead the Chiefs into Gillette Sunday night, ESPN unearthed an incredible stat: The Patriots are 23-0 in the regular season at home against quarterbacks under age 25 in the Bill Belichick era. The streak started in 2001 (Cleveland’s Tim Couch) and was extended in Week 1 this season (Houston’s Deshaun Watson). The Ravens’ Joe Flacco (2009) and Jets’ Mark Sanchez (2010) did earn playoff wins in Foxborough when under 25 . . . Mahomes was 5 when Brady entered the NFL. “I know . . . there’s a lot of those guys now and that’s just kind of the reality being around for a long time,’’ Brady said . . . The Patriots have at least one interception in five straight games . . . John Hussey has been assigned as the referee for Sunday night’s game.