By Ian R. Rapoport
FOXBOROUGH — Early in the Patriots' season-ending win over the Bills, they trailed 21-0 in what was turning into an ugly showing. With a No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs within its grasps, head coach Bill Belichick's defense wasn't coming close to stopping anybody.
The responses from the coaches before the first quarter ended were many, but one crucial adjustment was installing Julian Edelman at nickel corner. He played almost exclusively one-on-one coverage, bumping receivers off the line and shutting down the slot receiver with his quickness and physicality.
Yet, after the game, when a resounding 28-point win was secure and home-field advantage was locked down, Edelman was asked to recount the key changes made on defense that led to a 45-minute shutout.
"Well, I was trying to pay attention to the offense," said Edelman, after making five tackles. "So, I don't get to see the coaching adjustments sometimes. I have to be part of the offense. So, I don't really know what happened."
In Edelman's former life, before he was a hard-hitting, fast-moving member of the secondary for a much-maligned and depth-starved defense, he was a receiver. In fact, he's still a receiver.
It's just that when the Patriots ask him, he morphs into a prominent reserve on the other side of the ball. Excuse him for not paying attention to both sides of the ball.
Ho hum. Just life on the 2011 Patriots, where only QB Tom Brady is allowed to play one position. Everyone else better learn two or three or four jobs, because the team might need it.
And in every case, there has been little-to-no pushback from the players.
"I'd say in most cases if the player thinks it's an opportunity for him to get on the field more, they're usually not against it," Belichick said. " 'OK, we want you to do this and you'll get to play more.' 'No, I don't want to do it, I don't want to play,' I haven't heard that too many times. It's an opportunity for them to perform, get a chance to play more. I can't think of too many cases where the player didn't want to do it."
The list is astounding.
Edelman has played receiver and defensive back. So has Matt Slater, who also made the Pro Bowl as a special-teamer. Speaking of Pro Bowlers, that's what then-rookie Devin McCourty was at cornerback in 2010. Guess where he started and played the entire game against the Bills in the finale? Safety.
"I'm a defensive back now," said McCourty, who had seven tackles and an interception at his new temporary spot.
It doesn't end there.
To read the rest of this feature about how Bill Belichick values versatility in his players, purchase a copy of the current issue Pro Football Weekly online at the PFWstore.com. In this issue, you will also find analysis of what the Packers have to do to improve their struggling pass rush; a feature on how the 49ers' outstanding special teams have been a big part of their success in 2011; our in-depth previews of the four divisional playoff games; and our fantasy football and handicapping coverage.