|New England's Wes Welker steps out of bounds as he tiptoes down the sideline returning a Brian Moorman punt 26 yards. Welker returned three punts for 72 yards against the Bills. (MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)|
Investing in Welker proves very positive
FOXBOROUGH - It was a performance worthy of a postgame visit from the owner.
The Patriots had been out of synch, trailing, 7-3, early in the second quarter, and Wes Welker played the role of momentum changer. His back-to-back punt returns - for 29 and 26 yards - set up second-quarter touchdowns, igniting the Patriots to 35 unanswered points in what turned out to be a 38-7 rout yesterday.
So as Welker finished answering questions from a large media gathering in the locker room after the game, and a reporter attempted to deliver one more, team owner Robert Kraft stepped in and broke up the proceedings.
Welker put his left arm on Kraft's shoulder and the two walked out in lockstep, one man in a crisply pressed suit (Kraft), the other in blue jeans and sunglasses hanging from his T-shirt (Welker).
Nothing like some love from the man who signs the checks, and Welker certainly deserved it. He also added six receptions for 69 yards.
From coach Bill Belichick's perspective, the punt returns were especially important because they changed the course of the game and had been an area of emphasis in practice. The Patriots had not been pleased with their performance through the preseason and two regular-season games. A normal workload for punt return practice would be one day per week, but it had been increased to three days according to Belichick.
"We kind of got challenged this week and we wanted to answer that challenge," said Welker, who had four returns for 19 yards in the first two games.
The key moment yesterday came with 7:56 left in the second quarter, when the Bills were forced to punt from their 1-yard line. Pro Bowler Brian Moorman uncorked a booming 75-yarder that chased Welker back to the New England 24.
Welker made a tough over-the-shoulder catch while running backward to get things started.
"It's one of those deals where you almost become a receiver, catching a deep ball," he said.
The catch wasn't lost on Belichick, who noted that it was a tough ball to handle. After Welker gathered it in, he quickly planted and picked up steam up the numbers along the left side, before breaking to the sideline and going out of bounds at the Bills' 47. Welker noted the return was made easier by the fact that Moorman punted the ball so far, making it longer before the coverage team reached him.
Six plays later, the Patriots scored a touchdown.
After the Bills were forced to punt from their 20 on the next drive, Welker helped shift the field position again. Moorman delivered a 54-yard punt and Welker surged up the middle with it, his 26-yard run setting the Patriots up in Bills territory for the second straight drive.
"Right when I caught the ball I looked up and there was kind of a hole there, so I just took it upfield," Welker said. "Any time you see a hole like that you have to react and go."
Six plays later, the Patriots scored another touchdown.
So, how did the Patriots spring Welker for the returns?
Belichick explained that it started with players at the line of scrimmage holding up Buffalo's cover men. That group included Eric Alexander, Heath Evans, Mel Mitchell, Pierre Woods, David Thomas, and Larry Izzo, all core members of the special teams crew.
Meanwhile, Brandon Meriweather, Randall Gay, and Willie Andrews lined up like cornerbacks, trying to re-route the Bills' gunners on the outside.
Both Kevin Faulk (short) and Welker (long) stayed back for the return, with Faulk serving as a blocker once Welker made the catch.
Bills cover man Josh Scobey felt the combination of scheme - and Welker's decision-making and style - helped Welker get free.
"Wes is very decisive; he's shorter and quicker, and those guys are harder to tackle," Scobey said. "I think he uses that to his advantage and [Faulk] helped keep guys off him. When I was going down there covering, I might have been beating my guy off the line, but by the time I was getting down there, Faulk was approaching me. I had to make a decision whether to go outside or inside, and that's a tough part of it, because you've already beat one guy, and here's another one."
Alexander, one of the unsung members of the Patriots' return unit, said it was all about giving Welker an opportunity to shine.
"We worked on it double just to give the returner a chance; if we give Wes a chance with the ball he can make something happen," he said. "I think the extra work helped us out a little bit."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.