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Special Moments from Westhoff's Teams

Posted Mar 2, 2011

This is the eight and last  position review of the Jets' 2010 season that have appeared the past three weeks on newyorkjets.com.

As 2010 training camp crept toward opening day, some were questioning the Jets' special teams. But not the Jets' special teamers themselves.

"As a unit I think we have a lot of confidence in ourselves because we have Mike," Eric Smith told newyorkjets.com in August at SUNY Cortland, referring, of course, to ST coordinator Mike Westhoff. "It's hard not to have confidence in yourself when you have a coach who has the kind of record he does. He always has special teams in the top five in the league and he makes sure you know that. If we take what he gives us and try to implement it the best we can, we feel we'll be successful."

Westhoff lost such contributors to his teams as kicker Jay Feely, long-snapper James Dearth and coverage connoisseur Wallace Wright but said his kids would be all right.

"It's not as large a group as I've had at certain times, but it's a good group. They're good enough," he said. "Now guys have to come through."

No sooner said than done. The Jets' specialists weren't perfect but they were again among the NFL's best units. Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News ranked them seventh in the league in his celebrated annual rankings and Westhoff's special teams have been ranked in the top half of the league in 18 of the 21 years Gosselin has done his rankings. Football Outsiders ranked the Green & White fifth — the eighth time in the last nine seasons that the Jets under Westhoff have been in the top 10.

So it was lots of Coach Westy again but it was also guys, new and old, coming through that helped the Jets provide special performances in vastly more games than not, and gives them a platform from which to rise even higher in the rankings after the 2011 season. A breakdown by units:

B.Smith Off to the Races

Westhoff is one of the best kickoff-return coaches in the history of the game, and that was borne out again this past season as Brad Smith had the second and third KO-return touchdowns of his career. Smith's 28.6-yard return average was second-best in the league, the Jets' 25.2 team average was third, and the team's average 31.5 average drive start was first.

Taking it to the Heinz house with the opening kickoff at Pittsburgh in December was huge, but two weeks earlier Smith had the equally buzzworthy TD runback against the Bengals on Thanksgiving night, the last 50 yards of which he covered with one shoe off, one shoe on.

"I haven't heard anything yet," Smith said in the days after that game about if he'd received any calls for commercial endorsements. "Maybe I could get a sock deal or something."

Punt Return by Committee

Punt returns were less dynamic but still solid as Jim Leonhard was averaging 11.3 yards on 21 returns before he broke his leg in the last practice before the Dec. 6 game at New England. Jerricho Cotchery stepped in and again showed his proficiency with an 8.3-yard average in the regular season and 10.0 in the playoffs. Rookie Kyle Wilson got his feet wet with 15 returns (and only two fair catches) for a 7.4-yard average, and WR Santonio Holmes, CB Antonio Cromartie and rookie RB Joe McKnight also got some reps.

The Kickers

Overall, it was a mixed bag for placekicker Nick Folk and punter Steve Weatherford, but both had stretches of brilliance.

Folk's came in midseason — he won AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors when he went 5-for-5 in field goals in the 29-20 win over Minnesota, then the next week nailed a career and franchise marks with a 56-yard field goal and 5-for-5 on kickoff touchbacks in the mile-high air in Denver, then two weeks later hit the game-winning overtime field goal at Detroit.

All that was a prelude to his game-winning 32-yarder with no time on the clock to beat the Colts in the AFC Wild Card Game at Indianapolis.

Weatherford's averages were, for the most part, average. His 42.6-yard gross was 23rd among the NFL's qualifying punters, his 38.1 net (although a career high) was 15th. But his 42 inside-the-20 punts, now that's another story, as in an NFL record book story. He matched the 42 I-20s by former Jets punter Ben Graham with the Cardinals in '09 and the 49ers' Andy Lee in '07 for the most by any NFL punter since 1976.

The Cover Men

The Jets were middle-of-the-pack in covering opponents' kickoffs and punts but they had several individual stars. Lance Laury picked up where he left off as the Seahawks' special teams captain in 2008-09 as he led the Jets with 28 coverage tackles and added a fumble recovery at Buffalo.

James Ihedigbo was in Laury's ballpark with 27 tackles and a fumble recovery, made possible by McKnight's gunner role, vs. the Bengals. Five others had double-digit tackles — Brad Smith (19), Josh Mauga (15), Eric Smith (15), Marquice Cole (14) and Drew Coleman (10).

"How good can we be? It's hard to say right now," said Laury back in the summer. "All we can do is build from what they had last year and keep going, keep striving to get on top. We can't think about what happened last year now. We're our team now."

And those special teams as usual turned out to be pretty darn good.

Stats Snapshot

The Jets are only the third team in NFL history and the first team in four decades to score nine kickoff-return touchdowns in a five-season span:

 Teams Seasons TDs Returners
 CHI
1966-70
9
Gale Sayers (5),
Cecil Turner (4)
 GB
1967-71
9
Travis Williams (5), Dave Hampton (3), Larry Krause (1) 
 NYJ
2006-10
9

Brad Smith (3), Leon Washington (4), Justin Miller (2)

Monday, Feb. 14 — Quarterbacks

Wednesday, Feb. 16 — Running Backs

Friday, Feb. 18 — Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Monday, Feb. 21 — Offensive Linemen

Wednesday — Defensive Backs

Friday — Defensive Linemen

Monday — Linebackers

Preseason Live: New York Jets

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