FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Wes Welker heard the cheers when he caught his first pass since making a speedy recovery from a serious knee injury.
He just wasn’t sure he deserved them for only a 5-yard pickup on the Patriots’ first offensive play of the season.
“It should have been a much bigger gain,” the Pro Bowl receiver said Thursday.
Welker would prefer that defenders also pay less attention to him. That’s not likely to happen Sunday when New England visits the New York Jets, the team he set career single-game marks against last year with 15 catches for 192 yards.
They’re sure to focus on the slot receiver who has more receptions than anyone, 346, over the past three seasons. Jets coach Rex Ryan called the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Welker “a matchup nightmare.”
Even with a bulky brace on his repaired left knee, Welker runs shifty pass routes and makes good moves after the catch.
But, he said, “I wouldn’t consider myself the biggest matchup problem for anybody.”
He might become that once he’s back at his preinjury level. Welker tore a left knee ligament without being hit as he ran after making a catch early in the regular-season finale against Houston. He had surgery in February and came back far enough to play in exhibition games.
“It takes a full year until I’m me again is what they say,” Welker said. “So I’m just trying to … do what I can with what I’ve got right now.”
He did just fine in the opening 38-24 win over the Bengals with eight receptions for 64 yards and two touchdowns. He also cleared the hurdle of playing in his first meaningful game since he shed tears on the sideline moments after he was hurt trying to plant his foot.
“I really didn’t think I’d have any problems” playing a full game, he said, “but being able to get through it is definitely an achievement and it’s just moving on to the next week now.”
Ryan and the Jets’ defense that led the NFL last year are likely to show him different coverages than they used against Welker in the 10th game last season. They also have two cornerbacks who played a lot in the opening 10-9 loss to Baltimore, Antonio Cromartie and first-round draft pick Kyle Wilson, who weren’t on the team last year.
“That was one of those days where I was able to kind of get in the zone and make some plays,” Welker said. “I’m sure they’re going to be coming up with something to try and take that away this time around.”
If the Jets focus more of their defense on Welker, while allowing Darrelle Revis to cover Randy Moss one-on-one, Tom Brady could throw to his three new tight ends: rookie offensive threats Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and veteran Alge Crumpler.
“If they do want to take me away, some of the other guys are just going to have to step up,” Welker said. “No matter what they do, I’ve got to work on getting open.”
At times, he’s likely to be matched up against the 6-2, 210-pound Cromartie, who has excellent speed and range. But the elusive Welker’s much smaller build may work to his advantage in avoiding Cromartie before and after the catch.
“Bigger guys like that usually have more problems with stuff like that,” Welker said, “so I’ll try and use that to my advantage.”
It may not be an advantage, though, to think back to his outstanding performance against the Jets.
“You have good games versus teams and you have bad games versus teams,” Patriots running back Fred Taylor said. “Just because he shows up doesn’t mean he’s going to have a good game every time.”
Welker didn’t even play against the Jets the first time the teams met in the second game last year. He sat out with a knee problem and rookie Julian Edelman stepped in and caught eight passes for 98 yards. But the Jets won 16-9 at their home.
An outstanding start for a seventh-round draft pick who had been inactive for the opener, right?
Not to Edelman.
“You look at it and you say, `Wow, you looked really like a rookie last year,’ ” he said, “so there’s a lot of mistakes. Of course, there were little things here and there that looked all right, but I had a long way to go. I still do.”
Edelman may be the one to sit out this year’s road game against New York. He missed the opener with a foot injury that limited his participation in practice on Wednesday and Thursday this week.
But Welker feels good. So good, in fact, that he can’t wait to ditch the knee brace he said limits him.
“I’m definitely ready to get rid of it,” he said, “but, at the same time, we’re going to be cautious with it.”
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