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Pats hope more experience translates to more success for return game

07.29.12 at 11:08 pm ET
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FOXBORO — What do you need to be a good returner in the NFL?

According to Patriots special teams coach Scott O’€™Brien, it requires great vision, instincts, and cutting ability. You also must understand schemes and coverage principles. But before any of that, O’€™Brien said, ‘€œthere’€™s toughness.”

“It’€™s like having to run through a door and you don’€™t know what’€™s at the other end,” he said Sunday. “That’€™s number one.’€

The return game was the theme of O’€™Brien’€™s press conference on Sunday, and understandably so. Last year, the Patriots were in the middle to lower half of the league in almost every major return category, including average yards per kick return (21.4, 29th overall), total kick return yards (986, 19th overall) and average yards per punt return (10.2, 16th overall).

‘€œObviously last year was an area of inexperience for us,’€ O’€™Brien said.

Take, for example, Julian Edelman, who had 28 of New England’€™s 38 punt returns in 2011.

Edelman ‘€œhad no experience doing it,’€ O’€™Brien said, but ‘€œ[he] had some natural instincts, pretty good ball skills. Again, it was a learning curve for him.’€

Now that Edelman has some experience under his belt, O’€™Brien said the veteran ‘€œstill has some things that he has to improve on now but he’€™s more comfortable now. It’€™s like he plays everything before the play even happens and that’€™s what you’€™re looking for.’€

The coach is hoping that the team’€™s experience, like Edelman’€™s, will lead to improved results. ‘€œIt’€™s like anything else, it’€™s a point of emphasis for us but it always is.’€ O’€™Brien said. ‘€œI think in our case, there’€™s a good example of the learning curve of things that happened the way they happened that were either good or bad. Hopefully we learn from that experience and we continue to improve.

As for whether Edelman should be looking over his shoulder after Aaron Hernandez was seen catching punts in practice on Friday, O’€™Brien said the tight end is just working on his hands.

‘€œI think any time you’€™re a ball handler, one of the hardest things to do is to catch punts.’€ O’€™Brien said. ‘€œIt’€™s not only a great drill for any receiver, as well as punt returners, to focus in on trying to catch a ball that normally is tougher to catch than a quarterback throwing you a ball.’€

Edelman, for his part, welcomes the competition, wherever it comes from.

‘€œCompetition makes you better. Competition is big in any aspect of life.’€ Edelman said. ‘€œYou guys are competing, we’€™re competing. We just so happen to have ours on TV and newspapers and stuff. If you’€™re afraid to compete, you’€™re in the wrong field.’€

Read More: 2012 Training Camp, Aaron Hernandez, Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
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