How did Julian Edelman get free for a big punt return against the Bears? Most people head for the beer stand when the punter takes the field; not Chuck Zodda. Whether how to block a punt, execute a punt return or cover a kick, no one is more excited about the kicking game.
The New England Patriots drafted Julian Edelman with the 232nd overall pick in the 2009 draft. Expectations for a player drafted in the seventh round of any draft range from “non-existent” to “snowball’s chance in the oven is better than no chance at all.”
By snaring 37 passes in his rookie season, returning a punt for a touchdown in each of the next three seasons, and catching 105 passes for 1,056 yards in 2013, the man known as “Minitron” outperformed his projected value dramatically. Not bad for a guy who never played a snap at wide receiver before entering the NFL. His performance earned him a four-year extension from the Patriots last offseason worth up to $19 million. While Edelman was quiet in Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears on offense, he made a huge impact on special teams, setting the Patriots up for an important score near the end of the first half.
With New England up 24-7 after a Rob Gronkowski touchdown, the Bears took the ball at their 11-yard line and promptly went three-and-out, losing three yards in the process. Chicago’s special teamers then lined up to punt:
The above still shows the Patriots with seven men near the line of scrimmage. Four of them are stacked on the left side, with Tavon Wilson (#27) preparing to stunt to the outside of Deontae Skinner (#55). On the right side, only two Patriots are in position to rush the punter, and the reason for this will become evident later. Also in the image is Danny Amendola (#80), who drops back from the line of scrimmage before the hike.
Immediately after the ball is snapped, the six Patriots rush the kicker:
Highlighted in yellow, a strong wall is formed by the Bears blockers, as they properly account for all of the oncoming Patriots. Wilson has now stunted around Skinner (who the Bears triple-teamed up the middle), while Brandon Bolden (#38) and Chris White (#59) are tied up in man-blocking on the left side. On the right side, Jonas Gray (#35) has also been blocked by a Bears lineman. However, circled in red is Matthew Slater (#18), who the Patriots routinely deploy for high-importance roles on special teams. Slater is one of the key players to watch on this play. His presence indicates what the Patriots intend to do later on in the play.
The Bears get the kick off with minimal pressure on their punter, Pat O’Donnell. Directly after the punt, the Bears proceed downfield in punt coverage toward Edelman:
The still above shows the scene just after O’Donnell has punted. There is still a chaotic scene around the line of scrimmage, as Bears and Patriots are tangled in their initial blocks. Several members of the Bears progress downfield at this time as well. Circled in red are Gray and Slater. While coming from the right side of the formation, they circle around to the left side. Not pictured on this screen are Edelman and Amendola, both further downfield.
The next image shows a greater portion of the field as the play develops:
Edelman, circled in red, tracks the airborne ball and heads back towards the middle of the turf to field the punt. Amendola, now near the Bears 45-yard line, is on the left side of the field between the numbers and hash marks, and looks to work back towards the right to seal a potential block. Gray and Slater, still between the hashes near the end zone, begin to work back toward the left side. Circled in yellow, three Bears race down the right side of the field.
The following still shows the play just after Edelman has secured the ball:
The three Bears on the right side of the frame continue to close in on Edelman. The middle of the field is still somewhat jumbled at this point. However, Gray and Slater (two red circle-arrows toward the top) have worked across the field; they continue to track back and prepare to scour potential blocks for their punt returner.
Edelman (circled in red at the bottom) catches the ball at his own 39-yard line. He begins his return with a couple of quick steps to his right, before rapidly reversing course back to his left. This move sets up the coverage team for what is coming, as shown in the following still:
Six Bears defenders are circled in yellow. Each is on the right side of the field, but Edelman aims to go left, where the return is set up. While they may still have a chance of catching Edelman further downfield, his initial move put them at a significant disadvantage. A number of Patriots are already engaging blocks coming from the left, covering Bears along the path where the return is set up. Gray and Slater, now nearing the Bears 30-yard line, have worked themselves into position for blocks that could turn an average punt return into a personal escort service for Edelman as he heads down the sideline.
This is what is known as a “wall punt return”, a variation of which was used by the St. Louis Rams on their fake punt return against the Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots have sent most of their blocking resources to the left side of the screen, looking to work back towards the middle of the field to wall off Bears defenders. An ideal situation for a wall return is a kick to the opposite side of the desired return, as it gives the return team the largest expanse of field to work with.
This can be incredibly effective but is also a higher-risk play, as a directional kick towards the desired return side can limit the space available to set up this type of return, leaving the returner vulnerable to an onrushing mass of humanity intent on a forceful collision. But Edelman’s return is also a good situation to call for a wall punt return since punts from the end zone usually aren’t directional punts; the punting team normally wants as deep a punt as possible.
Edelman quickly bounces outside to his left, immediately taking over half the Bears’ coverage unit out of the play:
Marked with yellow X’s, there are now seven Bears either blocked or no longer in a position to make an impact on the play. Gray and Slater, now at the Bears 35-yard line, are in position to block the last two unblocked Bears outside of the left hash marks. This appears to be a perfectly-executed play by New England to this point.
The following still shows the only way that this play does not result in a touchdown:
O’Donnell, still deep in his own territory after punting the ball, takes nearly a perfect angle to cut off Edelman. Without this play from O’Donnell, Edelman has nothing but green ahead of him.
While O’Donnell does not make the tackle on Edelman, he does force him back to the inside, where Christian Jones (#59) makes the stop:
The touchdown-saving moves by O’Donnell and Jones are merely a temporary retrieve for the Bears. A 10-yard holding penalty on Chicago is tacked onto Edelman’s 42-yard return, giving New England the ball at their opponents’ 9-yard line, and Tom Brady finds Brandon Lafell in the end zone on the very next play for a Patriots score.
This performance by New England’s punt return unit here is nearly the opposite of the New York Jets’ attempted (and botched) kickoff return last Sunday. The play is properly executed and well drawn-up, with the Patriots’ blocking resources allocated to where the returner is actually going. And it has a competent returner making strong decisions throughout his run to advance the ball upfield. Creativity doesn’t have to be complicated in order to be effective. The simplicity and elegance of this play provides exactly what is needed to make a game-changing sequence for the Patriots’ special teams.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.