FOXBORO -- There was a red-zone route that Julian Edelman ran earlier this week. The thing must have involved about a dozen different feints, leans, and moments of subtle-handfighting.
Lined up to the left of Tom Brady at the hash mark, Edelman started at the 10-yard line. As he released, he jab-stepped inside, then stepped across the face of the corner, Justin Green. Green got in a solid punch to Edelman’s shoulder to establish contact and tried to ride Edelman further outside. But Green needed to stay in front of Edelman, so he retreated as well. Nearing the goal line, Edelman drove hard toward Green, who maintained hand contact but avoided any grabbing. The coverage was good.
At the goal line, it was still a dead heat. Brady stared Edelman down, waiting to see which way he’d break, reading Edelman’s moves so when the break did come, the ball would already be en route.
The final move was subtle. Edelman turned his head about two ticks to the left. Green leaned toward the sideline. That was it. Edelman pivoted right, put his arms out to create a pocket near his midsection, and the pass from Brady lasered into his arms.
You can’t defend that.
Running routes quickly enough to A) get free and B) be on time and at a location Brady expects is a process without end. Do it right once, and the demand to do it again is tailgating right behind.
And Edelman is still getting better.
Coming off a 105-catch season, which earned the former seventh-round quarterback a four-year, $19-million deal, Edelman is working with an intensity that indicates a guy who doesn’t want to give anyone a chance to say, “He got paid, he got complacent.”
And this camp is different for Edelman because he didn’t have an offseason injury to rehab.
“Last year, my offseason was about two weeks,” he explained. “Right now, I feel great.”
The fine-tuning a receiver does can be divided into categories. There’s getting a release off the line, running the route and making the catch. There are sub-categories in each of those.
“I’m trying to work more new releases,” Edelman explained to me earlier this week. “It’s just experience (that allows him to add new moves). Seeing different things and pairing two or three routes together so they all look alike. That’s the key.”
The art of route disguise is rooted in the stem. Making sure the first several yards of every pattern always looks the same sets up the defender.
Who was the best at “stemming?”
“[Wes] Welker,” Edelman said without pause. “Welker is unbelievable at that. And Deion Branch is really good at that. Releases, stemming, attacking guys and making stuff look the same. We’ve had a lot of guys who were good at that.”
Executing a precise route against “air” (with no defense present) is for the offseason. Adding the defense in is like going from soft-toss to live-BP in baseball.
“You also have to know who you’re playing [against],” said Edelman. "Is he gonna bite on this? Is he an instinctive guy? Is he a guy that’s gonna try to grab you? Is he a guy who’s gonna go after the first move or is he gonna wait and be patient? It’s a huge chess match and you’re constantly trying to put these things together and use them. Every play, you gain a little bit of experience. Over the years you realize that, when a guy gloves you (locks you down) one time, you put it in your head and say, ‘Well, let's make it look like that this time and go a different route.’ ”
Getting free against Green was an example of Edelman forcing his defender to make a decision before Edelman declared his intent.
“In the red area, it comes down to a few coverages so you know relatively what they’re gonna be playing by some looks if you know that defense and you have the tendencies and all that stuff,” Edelman explained. “When you know that, you know what they’re trying to protect. You take that and use all your tools to try and attack that.”
Green, for one, will probably be happy when Edelman's attacking someone from a different NFL city.