In what surely reminded a few New England Patriots fans of Troy Brown's 51-yard punt-return touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2001 AFC Championship Game, Julian Edelman's 43-yard punt return late in Week 9 quickly changed the complexion of the game.
Legendary Kansas State coach Bill Snyder once said:
I've seen too many games won or lost with special teams. On offense you run a play for zero yards, and you get up and do it again. On defense you can give up five yards, and you get up and do it again. But with special teams play, you get one shot. You don’t get second chances. You have one chance to do it, or one chance to defend it. It can change the complexity of the game so readily.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Julian Edelman is second only to the Seahawks' Golden Tate in the punt-return arena. He has averaged 11.5 yards per return on 26 attempts this year, but he saved his longest return for just the right time.
With the Patriots holding a precarious 27-24 lead and the Steelers building up a head of steam late in the third quarter, Steelers punter Mat McBriar boomed a low, driving punt toward the expectant hands of Edelman.
What happened next helped propel the Patriots to a stunning 28-7 run, culminating in a 55-31 victory.
The Patriots start in a pretty standard punt-return alignment, with two "vices" covering the opposing gunners.
The two outside players move inside, showing a punt block is on. The gunners are forced to come inside for protection purposes, negating some of their contain possibilities.
Here is the aerial view just after Edelman catches the punt, which quickly traveled 43 yards. Patriots blockers have successfully neutralized eight of the Steelers, leaving two tackling threats and the punter. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, those two would-be tacklers are stacked on top of each other rather than in separate lanes.
Here is another view just as Edelman is catching the ball. You can see the free defenders stacked on top of each other and Edelman's clear lane in front of him.
Another issue for Pittsburgh is that big, ugly blue line. That line shows there were 23 yards between Edelman and the closest defender when he caught the ball.
Edelman sees the lane and makes a cut to his right, quickly chewing up space toward the defenders. Having less space than they originally anticipated, the Steelers were unable to maneuver laterally in time to stop him.
With Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan locking up the biggest threat down the field and only the punter in the way, Edelman has to be thinking about six points here. The Steelers are still all in one lane, not forcing Edelman to move east and west.
After evading McBriar, Edelman is stopped just short of the original line of scrimmage. Harmon eventually lost the seal, and some backside pursuit was able to wrestle Edelman to the ground. Credit Harmon, Ryan, Jamie Collins and more with solid blocks on the play.
The big return spurred on the Patriots to a touchdown on that drive—Tom Brady hitting Aaron Dobson with a back-shoulder fade—and three more in the fourth quarter.
With the stout Carolina Panthers defense next up on the schedule, perhaps a big play in the kicking game will be the spark to another Patriots victory.