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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman had been keeping his distance from reporters since he was arrested and charged with indecent assault and battery on Halloween night.
For weeks, reporters entered the locker room only to find Edelman, usually one of the team's more accessible players, nowhere to be found. Then early last week, Edelman came walking through, shook a few hands and promised he'd have something to say after the team's "Monday Night Football" game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
It was "just time" to re-emerge, he said, and he did so as one of the star performers in the team's 34-3 victory, his 72-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter and Troy Brown-like role as a defensive back in the team's dime package (in which he was on the field for 12 snaps) giving him plenty to talk about.
Edelman's season had been defined by an ankle injury sustained Oct. 2 in Oakland and the headlines he made Halloween night, so Monday was his 2011 football breakthrough.
While more guarded than usual in his postgame remarks, likely a result of looming legal issues he said he'd been advised not to address, it was clear he was happy to be talking football again and flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as Brown.
How's this for some Patriots receiver-turned-defensive back symmetry?
On Nov. 22, 2004, Brown lined up as a defensive back in a 27-19 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on "Monday Night Football." On Nov. 21, 2011, Edelman did the same against the Chiefs on the Monday night stage.
"I know Troy Brown pretty well, I've talked to him a couple times, and I know he's done a little bit of everything. He's like a Swiss Army knife. I know he's a stud," Edelman said, adding that he's aware Brown has an interception on his impressive football résumé.
Just like Brown, Edelman has been thrust into the defensive role because of a run of injuries to the team's other cornerbacks. And just like Brown, he said he's happy to do whatever helps the team, even if he hadn't played defense since lining up at safety as a freshman at Woodside High School in California.
|Julian Edelman breaks free for a game-breaking 72-yard punt return.|
Edelman played slot cornerback for the first time at the end of the Patriots' Nov. 13 win over the Jets, putting a solid hit on LaDainian Tomlinson that injured the veteran running back. But that was in mop-up time. On Monday night, he was a bigger part of the plan, sprinting onto the field on the third play.
Of his 12 snaps, 10 came in the first half, and it looked like part of his job was to spy slippery-quick Chiefs running back Dexter McCluster, although he downplayed that aspect of his role afterward. He finished with one tackle and drew a holding penalty.
"It's definitely a new experience," said Edelman, a 2009 seventh-round draft choice who played quarterback in college and made the transition to receiver with the Patriots. "It's tough because you have to do stuff going backwards. You have to be fluid. It's just a totally different experience."
Because of the expanded role, Edelman now finds himself in "a lot" of meetings, and he credited defenders -- starting with linebacker Jerod Mayo -- with helping bring him along. Safety James Ihedigbo, for one, sees a player who can definitely help the D in a pinch.
"He's versatile. You saw what he can do with the ball in his hands on the punt return game and on offense, so when we get him on defense, you know he's a fast guy who can cover guys," Ihedigbo said. "We put him in position to do his best, and he does."
While the defensive role is new, Edelman's explosiveness on punt returns has been seen before. Last season, he had a 94-yard return for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins, and with his 72-yarder Monday night, Edelman becomes the fourth player in team history to return multiple punts for touchdowns, joining Brown (3), Irving Fryar (3) and Mike Haynes (2).
It is often said that all great returners must make at least one tackler miss, and Edelman did that in shaking free of defensive back Jalil Brown before cutting to his right, finding the seam, then cutting back toward the middle of the field. After looking at the video board to see that he was in the clear, Edelman emphatically fired the football at the stands in front of him as he crossed through the end zone, pointing to the awaiting crowd with his left index finger.
He described it as a spontaneous reaction, his emotions bubbling over. As for some of his other emotions over the past few weeks, Edelman didn't want to get into them but acknowledged the fallout of his arrest hasn't been easy.
After weeks of keeping a low profile, it was indeed "just time" for him to re-emerge. His top-notch performance made it easier to do so.
"It's been pretty challenging," he said. "All I can do is come out here, get away from everything else and focus on my job. That's what I've been doing."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.