Those who didn’t turn off Monday night’s New England Patriots rout before the midway point of the third quarter witnessed a rare, yet familiar sight: Julian Edelman returning a punt for the first time this season.
Though rookie Gunner Olszewski continued to handle all traditional punt returns in the Patriots’ 33-0 victory over the New York Jets, New England opted to send Edelman back to field the free kick that followed the team’s third-quarter safety. The veteran receiver picked up 19 yards before stepping out of bounds at his own 33-yard line.
Why the change? Bill Belichick explained Tuesday during his weekly interview with WEEI’s “Ordway, Merloni & Fauria.”
“It was a combination of things,” Belichick said. “But for that particular play, yeah, it was Julian back there, and Gunner was in the shorter spot. We had to shuffle some personnel around because of the inactives and so forth, so Julian got back there. We have multiple guys who can do that, but that’s just how it turned out for that game and that particular situation.”
With Edelman back deep, the Patriots positioned Olszewski at the 45-yard line and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers near the 40. All three are experienced return men.
This alignment, Belichick explained, was to protect against a potential pooch punt by New York’s Lachlan Edwards. It’s possible running back Rex Burkhead and/or safety Patrick Chung would have filled one or both of these spots had they not been sidelined with injuries.
“We had a 26-point lead at that time, and they kicked it deep, but I would say it was maybe not a certainty that the ball was going to be kicked deep,” Belichick said on WEEI. “So you had to cover other areas of the field, as well.”
Edelman is one of the most effective punt returners in NFL history, but aside from this free kick — which technically counted as a kick return — the Patriots have opted not to use him in that role. Through seven games, it’s been all Olszewski, who ripped off a season-long 22-yard runback early in the fourth quarter Monday night.
That could change in the coming weeks, however. The Patriots traded for wide receiver Mohamed Sanu on Tuesday and can activate N’Keal Harry off injured reserve next week, which could result in a current wideout being removed from 53-man roster.
Thumbnail photo via Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports Images