FOXBORO - Conversation about the Patriots' playoff prospects centers on two things. Whether the defense is championship caliber and whether the offense can avoid seizing up under heavy pressure. Virtually ignored? The special teams component. There's a credible reason for some of it. On kickoffs, the Patriots are a middling group statistically. On kickoff returns, they average a starting field position of 21.9. On coverage, their opponents' offenses take over at the 21.3. In the punting game, though, Zoltan Mesko is quietly having an outstanding season with a net average on punts of 40.8 yards (second in the AFC) and only two touchbacks on 42 punts. And on returns? Julian Edelman seems close to getting the knack for a job he is still a relative novice at. Edelman is averaging a respectable 12 yards on his 21 returns and he's only fair caught six punts. He's a bit of a panic back there, which may be part of the reason Wes Welker comes in to catch plus-50 punts. But he is also explosive and elusive. I caught up with Edelman in an otherwise deserted Patriots' locker room Monday to talk about his return progress. "Well, considering I dropped one this week, (not so good)," Edelman deadpanned. Aside from that? "You build the confidence in a week's practice," he explained. "You see that the (return) guys are holding their guys up and doing their job. You always like to think you can make someone miss. I guess there's a little confidence there but we didn't get to do it this week. Hopefully we can do it against the Redskins."Even though Edelman took back 21 punts last season and averaged a very impressive 15.3 yards per return, he is still a neophyte at the job. He didn't return until his final college game and only then because his coach was trying to showcase his versatility for NFL scouts. When I said the job takes guts, Edelman answered, "It's educated guts.There's a lot of study.Film study and taking punts to get the feel for the trajectory of the punt and what you have protected and if they're rushing and stuff. You usually know if you'll be able to return it or not (pretty early). Sometimes you take a risk and try to make someone miss and hope they overrun you."I mentioned to Edelman that I've seen him grab bouncing punts with coverage in close proximity. "I don't necessarily know if that's smart," he admitted. "Situationally, I have a lot to learn. I know when I do something wrong that I'm going to get yelled at when I get back to the sideline but sometimes you're competitiveness of wanting to make something happen wins out. But I have to get better at controlling that."Knowing how much Bill Belichick values special teams and how much he culls history for pertinent instruction, I asked Edelman if he's studied the great Cleveland Browns returner Eric Metcalf. "I've watched Metcalf. I've watched Steve Smith (from Carolina)," said Edelman. "I've watched a lot of the guys that Scotty O (special teams coach Scott O'Brien) has coached. Those guys not only were special athletically, they were situationally smart. They looked like professionals and as a punt returner you can tell if a guy knows what he's doing out there or not. That's something I have to get better at and hopefully we can put that together in this Redskins game."
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