Star bursts

Welker has a way of doing a lot with just a little room

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / November 29, 2009

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There’s not an inch of NFL turf designed for the meek.

But it’s the area framed by the two offensive tackles, stretching 7 or 8 yards downfield, where the bodies are bigger, the landscape more crowded, the contact less forgiving.

It’s here that Wes Welker does his best work. It’s here where the NFL leader in receptions makes defenses pay for overlooking him, the way so many teams once did. It’s here where the 5-foot-9-inch dynamo’s most valuable quality shines through.

Marvel at Welker’s ability to increase the dividends of his touches, at the 435 yards he’s churned out after the catch, if you will. Expound on his knack for finding holes in zone coverage, or his consistency in catching 76 percent of the balls thrown his way.

And know that, unequivocally, none of this happens unless the best trait he has as a football player is there.

Wes Welker is one tough hombre.

“He’s one of the toughest players I’ve coached,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was talking about all players at all positions. “It’s one thing to hit somebody, it’s another thing to catch the ball and get hit. That’s a different kind of toughness, to be able to have that kind of concentration. You get hit inside, you know there’s somebody in there.’’

An average reception for Welker, this year, has come 5.3 yards from the line of scrimmage. Last year, that figure was 3.7 yards, and the year before, 4.8 yards.

For his Patriots career, the number is 4.5 yards, and he has significantly more yards after the catch (1,833) than at the point of reception (1,361) in his three years in Foxborough.

And that is why Welker’s toughness is so essential to his game. Most of those catches come right in the teeth of the defense - where he looks like a pine tree in a forest of redwoods - near the hash marks and inside the box.

“He’s incredibly tough,’’ said Texas Tech’s Mike Leach, who coached Welker in college. “He played his entire senior year with a bad case of turf toe. He was getting treatment for it every week. And yet he had a tremendous season.’’

When people see the 15 catches Welker made last Sunday against the Jets, they may not take into account the corresponding hits, or consider who delivered them. But every one of them is tallied.

He leads the NFL with 79 catches, despite having missed two games. And those two games were the first ones he’s missed as a Patriot - despite the beating he takes. No small feat.

Avoiding annihilation
Welker may be proud of his toughness. But he’s no dummy. The line between being noble and being a numbskull is thin in a slot receiver’s world.

“Being able to be really shifty at the last second, and turn your body where you’re not taking the straight-on hit, like a lot of people do, I think some of that’s key,’’ he said. “And getting down when you get the opportunity - there’s no reason to take those extra hits for an extra yard or 2.

“If you’ve got the first down, get down. There are going to be times when you’re going to take those hits and you’ve got to try and know that the hit’s coming and protect yourself any way you can.’’

There are natural qualities, untaught ones, that tell Welker when to hit the deck.

“He’s a low-center-of-gravity guy,’’ said Leach, “and he has this ability to ‘get little’ - and he’s little to begin with - as he’s about to get hit. He catches the ball, he turns upfield so it looks like an explosion ready to happen, and he gets beneath it so it’s not so bad.

“It’s got to be instinctive, because I know guys who are the opposite. We had Carlos Francis here, and he went to the Raiders, and it always seemed like it was a routine with him. There’d be an explosion.

“There’s a talent to what Wes does.’’

If all Welker did was dive to the turf, he wouldn’t lead the NFL in yards after the catch. He measures the damage every time, and if the payoff’s there, he’ll go for it.

“A lot of it is knowing how many people are around you,’’ Welker said. “That factors in. And really, it’s just kind of a feel. If it’s one guy, or two guys, and you have the opportunity to split them, you take the opportunity, and instead of getting a yard or 2, you’re able to get 4 or 5. That’s a considerable amount of yardage, worth the risk.’’

Film study plays into it. Knowing the coverage can be a guide. Seeing whether it’s a safety or a linebacker or a cornerback coming at him can alter the approach.

So much of it can change quickly that vision is important. And that may well go back to his second sport at Heritage High in Oklahoma City.

“Wes has incredible peripheral vision,’’ Leach said. “He developed that from soccer, I think. He was a real good soccer player, and I know that if you’re going upfield with your teammates on each side of you, and you’re carrying the ball, you have to be able to see things through peripheral vision.’’

Fighting the good fight
When the question of whether Welker gets enough credit for his toughness is posed to Jets safety Jim Leonhard, he scoffs.

“Everyone knows the type of competitor and the type of athlete he is,’’ Leonhard said. “You know you have your hands full whenever he steps on the field.’’

At the start of the 2008 season, Welker played with a debilitating rib injury that he called “probably the worst’’ ailment he’s had to block out. But it’s just one in a litany he has played through.

Already this year, he has fought past knee and shoulder injuries, and is averaging more catches per game (9.9) than he did in 2007 (7.0) or ’08 (6.9). Like avoiding the big hit, playing through bumps and bruises and worse things is a skill.

“Being conscious of it, and trying not to get hit there in the game is the main thing,’’ Welker said. “That’s the only time you’re going to get hurt. The main thing is not taking that hit, or at least trying not to, and understanding it’s there.

“But sometimes, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and you reinjure it and you’ve got to push through it. It’s part of the game.’’

Welker can’t always avoid the crushing blow.

Last week, he was jolted by Jets linebacker David Harris - who outweighs the receiver by 60 pounds - just 4 yards from the line on a jail-break screen. No one noticed - it was the same play on which Mark LeVoir crumpled New York corner Donald Strickland - but every one of these counts.

Welker says there is really no secret to getting himself ready to play a week after getting knocked around like a pinball.

Searching for an answer on how hard it is to come back, he said, “It’s not how many hits you take, it’s taking the wrong type of hit. There’s always that one that kind of offsets all the others.

“We usually work out on Mondays. Running or getting on the treadmill, flush the body out, that seems to help.’’

Leonhard said, “It’s really hard to get a clean shot on him. He’s so good at contorting his body.’’

But when so much of Welker’s work is done in an area of the field where he’s liable to make like a Ferrari going head-on into a Hummer, it’s impossible for all the contact to come off like a fender-bender.

“Part of that is having confidence in your quarterback, knowing he’s not going to send you into some train wreck,’’ Belichick said. “Still, catching the ball in that kind of traffic takes a special kind of toughness and concentration. Troy [Brown] had it. Wes has it.’’

The coach added that players like those two - and another one he has been around, ex-Jet Wayne Chrebet - aren’t common.

It’s not easy to measure how much tougher one player is than the next in a sport full of tough guys until you see it yourself. And in Welker, it’s unmistakable.

“I take a lot of pride in it, trying to be a tough football player,’’ he said. “I want be out there every Sunday and push through what I have to push through and just keep playing.’’

With few exceptions, he has. And even taking all his gaudy numbers into account, that might be the most remarkable thing of all.

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