Perhaps the expectations weren’t too high, after all.
Julian Edelman made as big of an impact as many hoped he would upon making his much-anticipated return to the New England Patriots’ lineup against the Kansas City Chiefs.
And if his performace in the divisional round is any indication, he could have just as big of an impact in the AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos this week.
Given all the doubt about Edelman’s effectiveness after seven weeks away, and the health of the broken foot he suffered in Week 10 against the New York Giants, there was reason to be cautious with optimism about his impact.
One look at the stat sheet shows the “cautious’’ part of that optimism might have been misguided.
It was as if he never missed a game. The Patriots’ leading wide receiver picked up right where he left off and was targeted a team-high 16 times, coming down with a team-high 10 receptions for 100 yards in the process.
According to stats website Pro Football Focus, Brady went from being pressured 30.6 percent of the time in Weeks 1-10 to 41.6 percent of the time without Edelman from Weeks 11-17. Against the Chiefs, that number dipped to 16.3 percent. Everything changed with Edelman back in the lineup: New England converted 48.7 percent of its third downs from Weeks 1-10, 32 percent in Weeks 11-17, and 50 percent against the Chiefs. The Patriots converted 35.4 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns from Weeks 1-10, but then just 19 percent Weeks 11-17, and back up to 37.5 percent against the Chiefs.
Edelman’s return had an impact in ways the stat sheet only begins to describe.
Brady looked more comfortable in the pocket than he’s looked since Week 10, and that’s despite the exact same guys blocking for him up front.
It took almost no time at all for that newfound comfort to reveal itself. On the Patriots’ first third down of the game, a 3rd-and-10 with 14:29 left in the first quarter, Brady found No. 11 for an 11-yard completion to keep the drive alive.
But it wasn’t as easy as 1-2-3. Edelman ran the out route eight yards downfield and shook the defender, but Brady’s pass was thrown a little behind Edelman. The former Kent State quarterback made a great adjustment on the ball, bobbling it into his own frame and securing it to make the catch, but his work wasn’t done then either.
Edelman knew he still had another couple yards to go before picking up the first down, and so he wisely fell backward with possession of the ball, making his way over the first-down marker and helping the Patriots convert the first third down of the game, on a drive that would eventually end in a touchdown.
Finally, Brady had someone he could thread the needle to on a short pass on third down. On 3rd-and-4, with 6:28 left in the second quarter, Edelman ran a hitch route where he ran toward the middle of the field and settled into a soft spot in zone coverage. Brady saw Edelman get open, but with three defenders waiting around the receiver, Brady knew he had a very small window to complete the pass.
He had confidence in Edelman to turn around, see the pass coming, and quickly concentrate on making the catch and picking up the first down, even with so much traffic in his personal bubble.
But also watch Brady’s poise in the pocket. He hit his back foot, and the ball almost immediately came out of his hand. There was a level of confidence with Brady delivering that ball that we hadn’t seen out of the Patriots quarterback in the final seven games of the season.
But notice that Brady had the ball out of his hands quickly on both the illustrated third down plays. That’s the key tenet that’s been missing from the Patriots offense in Edelman’s absence. Brady hasn’t had that quick target, that security blanket he needs when the pressure is closing in.
Edelman’s performance wasn’t just limited to third-down catches over the middle. In fact, his most impressive catch of the night was on 1st-and-10, with 9:33 left in the third quarter, with the Patriots holding a 14-6 lead.
Edelman ran a wheel route on the left sideline, starting out running toward the bench before turning upfield. Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith played it about as well as any cornerback could; he forced Edelman to the sideline and put himself between the quarterback and the receiver. His only mistake was that he never turned to look for the ball — oh, and also that he’s not short enough to reach down low to break up this pass.
A turning, digging reception by Edelman gave the Patriots a fresh set of downs and the ball deep in Chiefs territory.
The back-shoulder throw is usually reserved for big-bodied physical receivers who can get open against tight coverage. This might classify as more of a “back-knee’’ throw than a back-shoulder one, but Edelman’s concentration to make the catch in this tight of a window is remarkable.
Edelman’s return ensures that the Patriots will not succumb to constant pressure in Brady’s face. His presence on the field is arguably more important than any other Patriots player including Brady, and unarguably more important than any other Patriots player not including Brady.
And if the Patriots offense hums through the Denver Broncos’ No. 1 overall pass defense, just two games removed from a miserable six-game stretch, Edelman’s impact on the offense will be underscored yet again.
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