Coleman defends the pass against Lee Evans
When the New York Jets defense took the field up in Buffalo for the third game of the 2006 season, second-year safety Erik Coleman started on the sideline for the first time in his professional career. Coleman, who started the first 34 professional games he appeared in, was able to regain his familiar defensive backfield starting position in a mid-October game against Miami and remained there for the duration of the season.
Under Coach Eric Mangini, there were no favorites. Players earned playing time for their work throughout the week. Derrick Strait, a defensive back no longer with the team who was actually selected two rounds before Coleman in the '04 NFL Draft, made an impression on Mangini before the September contest with the Bills. After totaling seven tackles in the Jets' first two games, Coleman was relegated to reserve duty.
"I think it's going to be one of those situations where opportunity will knock," Mangini said of the secondary. "If you take advantage of it, it will become less fluid. If you don't, it will stay fluid.
"But we're always going to put the best guys on the field to help us beat that team, and it's going to change weekly and the matchups are going to change weekly and to me, it's whoever is playing the best is going to play in the game and whoever helps us win the most is going to play in the game. The best way to ensure that you're playing all the time is to really take advantage of the opportunities."
Coleman, though, was able to keep his head up and racked up four tackles against the Bills. Three weeks later, Coleman returned to his customary backfield starting position opposite budding star Kerry Rhodes. In a 20-17 win over the Dolphins, Coleman registered six stops. Then he totaled a season-high 10 tackles in a win over the Lions on October 22.
"It was initially hard to deal with," said Coleman of not starting. "I have been used to being the guy that other guys look up to and the guy that guys ask questions to. Not that that changed but when you're not starting, for a second, you have a little doubt. Once that second passed, I had to get back to working hard and doing things that made me successful in the past, which is playing well, making plays, making tackles, and being a leader in the secondary on defense."
During the Jets' rousing victory over the Patriots up in New England, Coleman was responsible for a critical fourth quarter takeaway. The Jets held a tenuous 10-6 advantage when the 5,10", 200-pound Coleman intercepted a Tom Brady pass inside Pats' territory. Four plays later, Chad Pennington hooked up with Jerricho Cotchery for the game-winning score.
"I was covering [RB Laurence] Maroney and he checked out and released," Coleman said. "I was going to run to him, but when I looked up the ball was there. I kind of tipped it up, grabbed it and was able to make a play."
As the season progressed, Coleman became a steadier performer. His stat line for the football year included 93 total tackles and 30 solo stops. As the Jets battled for their playoff lives Christmas night in Miami, Coleman thrived in the rain and tied for the team lead in tackles with nine. And then in wild card playoff action, Coleman paced the club with 10 tackles.
"Erik cares deeply about not just playing, but about the team. I really like Erik, I like Erik as a player, and I like Erik as a person," Mangini said of Coleman in November. "The key thing is always doing what is best to help us win week-in and week-out. He and I have talked about those things, and he works at it each day, and he has gotten better."