Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots is one of the best punt returners in the NFL. Not the best of all-time ‒ that’s still Devin Hester. Edelman’s combination of skill, technique, instincts and speed allow him to capitalize on mistakes ‒ like the ones made by Britton Colquitt and the Denver Broncos.
Two weeks ago, we detailed Julian Edelman’s punt return against the Chicago Bears. This play is another great example of outstanding special teams strategy and execution, with the entire unit chipping in to create a momentum-changing play. Edelman delivered a stellar return, this one resulting in a touchdown on Sunday against the Denver Broncos, again showing that he is an elite talent capable of changing the game on his own.
Halfway through the second quarter, New England led 13-7 following a 5-yard touchdown pass to Edelman from Tom Brady. Denver’s next drive stalled at their own 31-yard line and the Broncos sent out their punting unit intent on pinning the Patriots deep:
The above still shows the pre-snap look from the Patriots, who have eight men near the line of scrimmage. On the left side, Patrick Chung (#23) peels off before the snap to double the gunner on the left side of the field. Danny Amendola (#80) also drops away from the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, allowing him to read the play to set up his block. Nate Ebner (#43) will twist to the outside in an attempt to create some confusion on the offensive line.
As the ball is snapped, Denver picks up the incoming Patriots with no errors:
Every man is accounted for by the offensive line, with the Broncos in good position to get the kick off cleanly and begin their pursuit down the field.
However, Denver punter Britton Colquitt (#4) decides this is a good time to practice his drop and recovery skills. As he is preparing to kick, the ball slips from his hand and hits the ground:
This is a critical error. Circled in yellow, Colquitt reaches down to grab the ball. In the NFL, teams aim for a snap-to-kick time of 1.8 to 2.0 seconds on punts to ensure they get the ball away cleanly. A dropped ball by the punter dramatically increases that time, upping the risk that the kick will be blocked. So how long did Colquitt take? One-Mississippi. Two-Mississippi. Three-Mississippi. Still waiting.
In the still below, Colquitt has finally recovered the ball and is preparing to punt. Again:
On the right side of the screen, five Broncos are now heading down the field, largely free of blocks. New England rushers have tied up Broncos linemen on the left side of the screen, but they too are in decent position to begin working down the field.
Colquitt somehow gets the ball away despite two Patriots being in position to block the kick. The final snap-to-kick time was just over 3.3 seconds. Colquitt was a second and a half slow in releasing his kick. The below image shows Brandon Bolden (#38) with his arms outstretched, narrowly missing on making contact with the ball, as well as Tim Wright (#81) behind Colquitt, who is finally punting the ball:
The only reason the Patriots were able to pressure Colquitt on this kick was his drop, as Denver’s protection was actually fairly strong. However, this is just the beginning of the problems for the Broncos punt coverage team.
Circled in yellow above are three Broncos players who have their heads turned back to the punter, looking to see if the kick was blocked. Linemen on the punt team have two jobs: prevent the kick from getting blocked, and then work downfield to make a tackle on the returner. In a situation where these players do not hear the sound of a punt, their instinct is to look to see if the kick has been blocked. This would require them heading back towards the punter in support. Colquitt has now disrupted the timing of the play and, as a result, these Broncos are no longer entirely focused on getting downfield.
Unfortunately for Denver, the next still shows the confusion continuing even after the kick is away:
This has the effect of not only slowing down the Broncos players, but also taking them away from their lane assignments. A comparable situation for the average person is driving by an accident scene on the side of the road. As you pass the smashed car, your thoughts may begin to drift due to no longer being focused on where you are going. In a car, this can cause another accident. On punt coverage, it can create openings for a returner.
From the end zone view, Edelman is now in position to receive the punt with two blockers set up to create a seam:
The arrow in red indicates the path for Edelman. Amendola kicks out his block to the right, and another Patriots blocker walls his man off to the left. This creates the initial hole for Edelman to work through as he gains speed.
At this point, the vast majority of the Broncos defenders are still anywhere from 25 to 30 yards away from Edelman. This probably seems unusual, with Colquitt taking significantly longer to kick than expected ‒ the Broncos should actually be farther down the field than on a typical punt. However, there are two factors at play here. As mentioned earlier, a number of Broncos players slowed their downfield pursuit to look for a blocked kick as Colquitt dropped the ball. More importantly, Colquitt has kicked an absolutely terrible ball. NFL punters look to create hangtime of 4.5+ seconds on a typical punt. Colquitt’s punt here only registered 3.6 seconds of hang time, which leaves a significantly shorter window for the Broncos to get downfield in coverage.
Below, Edelman has finally received the punt and begins his return:
The two closest Broncos are sealed off by Patriots blockers, as Edelman takes a quick step to his left to avoid the initial rush before spotting a lane back to his right. Near the top of the screen is Wright, who is finally tracking back after his attempt to block the punt. While far removed from the action at this point, he will make a critical block in springing Edelman later on.
The next still shows Edelman picking up a key block to his right as he continues to move upfield:
Malcolm Butler (#21) has worked across the face of a Broncos defender on the right side of the screen, creating a double team. By pinning this Broncos player to the inside of the field, Butler and his teammate have cleared a lane for Edelman to take the ball to the sideline. Edelman, displaying great instincts, sees the block and bounces to the outside:
Edelman is now completely outside all of the Broncos defenders. Butler has peeled off his block and works upfield to searching for a new target. Wright is now within ten yards of Edelman, and lines up the key block that will allow Edelman an unimpeded route up the sideline:
Circled in red, Wright makes shoulder-to-shoulder contact with Broncos rookie linebacker Corey Nelson (#52). There was initially a lot of speculation that this was a block in the back, but as shown here, it is very clear that Wright is making clean contact with the outside of Nelson’s shoulder. Nelson is thrown back towards the Patriots’ end zone, kicking him behind Edelman and leaving him unable to make a play on the returner.
As the play progresses, Edelman has gained ground up the sideline:
Jacob Tamme (#84) is the only Bronco other than Colquitt who appears to have a chance at Edelman. And no one wants to see a punter try to make a tackle (video link). Tamme takes what appears to be a good angle towards the sidelines in pursuit of Edelman, using the boundary as another defender.
However, Edelman spots Tamme, and sets up his next move:
With Butler appearing to set up a potential block, Edelman recognizes the angle Tamme is taking and cuts back to the middle. The result? Barely-intact ankles and shattered confidence for Tamme:
Circled in yellow, Tamme is nursing his broken ankles and unable to make any play on Edelman, who is now in a foot race with Colquitt. While Colquitt does display impressive speed for a punter over the remainder of the play, he is still no match for Edelman, who waltzes into the end zone untouched.
This was a play that had a number of critical blocks and, more importantly, a returner who not only recognized those blocks but was able to act quickly and decisively to capitalize. Among kick returners, Julian Edelman is not in the same class as Devin Hester was in his prime. Hester is a once-in-a-generation player who is head and shoulders above anyone else to ever play the position. But Edelman is one of the elite return men in the game today. He displays a number of the attributes that Hester utilized during his career to make him successful, with quickness and spatial intelligence being at the top of the list. He is a tremendous talent who is on the verge of making opposing teams game plan for him in two phases of the game, which is something Hester was never able to do. And because of that, he is one of the most valuable players in the NFL.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
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