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Patriots' return man

Bruschi joins his teammates on practice field

FOXBOROUGH -- Yesterday's Patriots practice was a non-contact workout, as in no tackling, no hitting, and none of the violent collisions that make the NFL a brutal sport.

So when Tedy Bruschi lined up with the second-team kickoff return unit, there was no need for held breaths among the Patriots' fandom.

The first time the Patriots ran the drill, Bruschi approached Ryan Krug, a practice squad member, and gave the rookie a tender chuck.

But Bruschi being Bruschi, the second time he was involved in a kickoff, he found Mike Vrabel running downfield in coverage, gave him a gentle block, then chased him trying to get more. As Bruschi kept coming, Vrabel turned his back and retreated. And smiled.

Bruschi is back.

Eight months after suffering a mild stroke, the Patriots linebacker took a significant step toward beginning his 10th NFL season yesterday when he joined teammates on the practice field at Gillette Stadium.

''It's a relief that I got the first day under my belt," said Bruschi, who underwent heart surgery in March. ''I won't lie to you. I'll be honest with you. I've still got a long way to go. I've got a long way to go in which I've still got other steps to take in terms of games and physical contact, but I think I'll be ready for that."

After a bye this weekend, the Patriots (3-3) face their first AFC East Division foe when the Buffalo Bills visit Gillette Stadium Oct. 30. Bruschi hopes to be ready to play in that game.

''I'm going to try," Bruschi said. ''Today was the first step in my attempt. I felt good out there, but I'm not going to make any guarantees or promises, just that I'm going to give it my best shot."

Bruschi remains on the physically unable to perform list, and by league rules is allowed to practice without a change in status for up to 21 days. He may be activated at any time.

Bruschi, who missed all of the offseason minicamps and training camp, was placed immediately with the first-unit defense when the Patriots began position drills. A strong-side linebacker in the team's 3-4 defense, Bruschi was inside with Vrabel for the first practice snap.

First-year Patriots Monty Beisel and Chad Brown, second and third on the squad in tackles, have been the first-teamers at those positions all season. Beisel, who suffered a broken finger last week and saw limited action against last Sunday Denver, declined interview requests before practice.

Other Patriots were happy to talk about having Bruschi back in the fold.

''He's obviously made his fair share of plays here," Vrabel said. ''He's made game-changing and game-winning plays. I think that when you look at it like that, you're getting another guy out there that has the ability to make those types of plays and help us."

Vrabel said lack of playmaking is the reason the Patriots are last in the league in red zone defense.

Defensive end Richard Seymour, who returned to practice yesterday for the first time in more than two weeks after suffering a knee injury, said Bruschi brings more to the table than just playmaking skills.

''There's always a presence when he steps in that huddle," Seymour said. ''The things that he brings to the football field, it goes without saying. You just look back there and there's a feeling inside of you, you know you have a guy that lays it all on the line. He's done that ever since I've been here.

''He's a big-game player. He plays with a lot of emotion and lot of heart. He's the heart and soul [of the defense]."

Heart and soul aren't likely to be enough to turn the fortunes of the Patriots' defense. Bruschi, who has more tackles than any other Patriot over the past four years, will need to play substantially like the Bruschi who earned his first Pro Bowl trip last season to make a difference.

''It comes down to making plays," Seymour said. ''It doesn't matter who you have in the huddle, what really matters is what you do on the football field."

Bruschi isn't expecting to be a savior for the two-time defending champion.

''I can't play quarterback, I can't play safety, I can't play offensive line," Bruschi said. ''All I can do is play one position."

Bruschi said he doesn't want to be a distraction, though he knows there will be extra attention on him until he plays in a game and proves he is healthy. He reported no pain or discomfort after yesterday's workout.

''[There was] nothing discouraging," he said. ''I think the encouraging thing was that I'm still seeing things right. I'm still getting my reads, and on pretty much every snap I was in there and had the right read that I should have had for that offensive play. There were maybe some false steps here and there, but I think that comes with the first day."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Bruschi would be evaluated on a daily basis and treated like any other player trying to break into the lineup.

''We'll take it day by day," Belichick said. ''That's the way it's been for the last however many months. That's, I think, the only way you can do it.

''I love Tedy Bruschi. I love him. He's been a significant player for our team. But, at this point, we'll put him out there and day by day we'll see how it goes. I don't think anybody has a crystal ball."

Bruschi echoed the ''one day at a time" theme. ''I'd say the next step is tomorrow's practice," he said. ''Whatever we do, it's still another day to me. I'm living life one day at a time right now.

''I'm very fortunate that I'm still able to play the game that I love. I'm going to go home and sleep and then wake up tomorrow and do it again."

And he typically does it in a way that sets the pace for the rest of the team.

''By the way that Tedy approaches the game, if they're not playing up to speed or to his speed, guys are going to have to catch up, 'cause Tedy's not going to wait around for anybody," Vrabel said.

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com.

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