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All looks well with Welker

Wide receiver Wes Welker of the New England Patriots returned to action for the first time this season during the preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Aug. 19 in Atlanta. The Patriots beat the Falcons 28-10. (Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images) Wide receiver Wes Welker of the New England Patriots returned to action for the first time this season during the preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Aug. 19 in Atlanta. The Patriots beat the Falcons 28-10.
By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / August 20, 2010

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ATLANTA — At this point, should anyone be surprised?

It was eye-opening to see Wes Welker in uniform for the Patriots’ first set of full-squad organized team activities. Some people were still a little shocked when he came off the physically unable to perform list on the fourth day of training camp.

So when he trotted on to the Georgia Dome FieldTurf last night in a cutoff workout shirt, football pants, and a hinged knee brace tucked under his socks and pants, the only people who could’ve possibly been taken aback were those not paying attention.

Impressive? Sure it was, just seven months and 17 days after Welker tore his ACL and MCL, and only six months and 18 days after he had the ACL surgically reconstructed.

Shocking? Nope. This is who Welker is, as a player and a person.

“He’s as competitive and as hard-working a player as we’ve had,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “We’ve got a lot of them, but he’s right up there with all of them.’’

That’s why, from the first day of his rehab, the All-Pro wide receiver set the goal of not missing a regular-season game, even as so many ticketed him for a ballcap and T-shirt for the first six weeks of 2010. It’s also why the plan’s execution has gone as smoothly as anyone could’ve hoped, and just as he expected it to.

That plan went into its final stage last night — getting Welker game action to ramp him up for Sept. 12.

“I wanted to make sure that I’m giving myself every opportunity to get out there Week 1,’’ Welker said. “But at the end of the day it’s up to the doctors and the coaches to make sure I’m ready for that.’’

To be clear, Welker was in on just six snaps. He came off the bench after the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage was called back for holding. He was in on the next four plays, was pulled for one play, then returned for two more snaps.

And that was it.

But it can’t be underplayed. Those were six of the most significant snaps you’ll ever see in a preseason game.

“I think they’re really significant,’’ Welker said. “This is something I’ve been working towards, really trying to get back, and then get back out on the field. To be able to do it here in the second preseason game is a milestone for me.’’

On his first snap, a first-and-20, Welker found a hole in a Tampa-2 zone, hooked up, and hauled in a ball from Tom Brady for a 6-yard gain, before being crunched by Atlanta middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. On the next one, a second-and-14, Welker ran a drag underneath, collected a ball thrown slightly behind him, and motored upfield to pick up 14 yards and the first down.

The Patriots drew one up for Welker on the play after that, running a flare screen into the right flat. That didn’t go quite as swimmingly, with Atlanta cornerback Christopher Owens getting a bead on it early, and snuffing it out by delivering a big, high hit to Welker.

The idea is to get Welker work, and he got work in Atlanta. On the three plays he was targeted, he did three uniquely different things — reading the defense and catching the ball with his back to the coverage on the first one, running a route and turning upfield on the second one, and executing a screen on the third.

The truth is Welker was healthy enough to play in a game, according to those around him, before training camp even started, and is now at no more risk than any other athlete would be. But with the leeway of a month-and-a-half to work with, the Patriots and his trainers could map things out in order to prepare him to play at the highest level in Week 1, which has been the point all along.

The stage Welker is at now — according to Alex Guerrero, the man who directed his rehab, and the man who ran Brady’s rehab the year before — is one of “finding his knee.’’ From a medical perspective, Welker’s knee is a new one, and the work now is to achieve balance so that the left one feels just like the right one.

To do so, he needs game action. The idea last night was to clear some of the mental hurdles every athlete faces coming off that kind of injury when the games don’t count, so he’ll be sharper when they do count.

“The preseason is good for that,’’ he said. “Even if it is just a few plays getting out there, it’s good to have.’’

Before any of last night’s work, Welker was accorded subtle nods and a proper welcome back from the Patriots.

He led a group of return men out of the tunnel during warm-ups, and had a number of coaches pat him on the back or pound him on the shoulder pads. Welker stayed levelheaded throughout, with a steely look even though he, admittedly, had different kinds of pregame jitters than he usually would.

For the team, though, it provided a lift for a preseason game.

“No disrespect to any other receiver in the NFL, but man, he’s the truth,’’ said 13-year veteran Fred Taylor. “He works hard. Everything he’s gotten, he’s earned. Even to try and battle back. I don’t want to do too much talking for him, but it does feel good to see him back out there.’’

For all of us, this kind of comeback is pretty amazing, all things considered. But as Julian Edelman said, “If you know him, you wouldn’t expect anything different.’’

Yes, this is just what he expected. It’s who he is.

And that mind-set is, without question, part of what makes him great.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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