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Bill Belichick’s defensive genius, record-breaking offenses and three Super Bowl victoriess will someday put him in the Hall of Fame. Tom Brady and he have formed the greatest coach-quarterback pair in NFL history.
But beyond all of that, one thing truly sets Belichick above the rest: his creative use of personnel. Belichick has always found a way to get maximum productivity out of players cast aside elsewhere.
Brady might be the best example of a nobody Belichick turned into a superstar, but the full list is much, much longer. A perfect example is Troy Brown: a small-yardage receiver (career average: 11.4 yards per catch) who only once gave the Patriots a 1,000-yards receiving year once, and whose touchdown receptions maxed out at six in 1997. He averaged fewer than four catches per game in the playoffs, only scoring once.
As Belichick’s offense became bigger and bigger, Brown’s usefulness as a wide receiver lessened and lessened. So in typical fashion, Belichick made Brown a cornerback in 2004.
The move paid dividends, with Brown picking off three passes and recovering two fumbles. Injuries wracked the Patriot secondary that year, and Brown’s contributions gave the full-time defenders just enough of a reprieve to keep everything from collapsing.
When Brown retired in 2008, Belichick said it was “an honor and a privilege” to work with Brown. High praise from a man who rarely gives any.
This season, an injury-riddled defense has been once again getting help from a wide receiver.
Three years into his career, Julian Edelman has yet to find a clear role with the Patriots. His 2010 season didn’t come close to his 37 catches and 359 yards (one touchdown) the year before. Without a decent final five games, his 2011 season (three catches, 27 yards) won’t even approach his 2010 season (seven, 86).
Edelman currently ranks ninth on the Patriots’ receiving chart – easily last place among the wide receivers and tight ends. Belichick’s passing strategy – Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez in the slot, Deion Branch along the sideline, Rob Gronkowski over the top – just doesn’t include Edelman’s skill set.
Like Brown, Edelman is also a competent punt returner, but in recent weeks Danny Woodhead has taken his place. Unwilling to let a talented, healthy player just sit on the bench, Belichick has started using Edelman as a cornerback.
While the move hasn’t yet produced a turnover or sack, Edelman has undeniably helped an incredibly shaky secondary hold together for just a bit longer. It might be a stop-gap measure, but so far Edelman at cornerback has worked out.
Edelman currently has five tackles, including four solo. These aren’t the numbers Brown put up in 2004 – 17 tackles, four defensed passes – but they still reflect the overall positive impact Edelman has had on the team.
Equally important to Edelman’s tackles has been his tackling technique, which is flawless. He gets low on receivers, then wraps them up or trips them. He doesn’t lead with his helmet, and he stops forward momentum without allowing extra yards after the catch. He hits hard, but clean.
Edelman put all that on display in Sunday’s thrashing of the Philadelphia Eagles. Vince Young scrambled for the end zone on second-and-eight from the New England 9 midway through the third quarter, and Edelman stopped him at the 2. A fourth-and-1 incomplete pass killed the Eagles’ best change to get back in the game.
Apparently unsatisfied with that tackle, Edelman hit Young again near the end of the third. Young dropped back to pass near midfield, and an unblocked Edelman zeroed in on Young on a right-side corner-blitz. Young threw a rushed, incomplete pass to avoid the sack, but Edelman still leveled him with a perfect, waste-high, pads-first tackle.
Belichick has yet again found a way to get production from a player that otherwise would have just sat on the bench. Good for Belichick for getting past Edelman’s off-the-field issues, and good for Edelman for swallowing his ego and being willing to play a position he’d never played before.
Edelman might never be Brown. But with a defense as banged up as the Patriots, Edelman might just need to continue being Edelman.