Erik Coleman's first NFL start came in his first professional game. But the Jets' fifth-round selection didn't appear too green as his fourth-quarter interception of Cincinnati Bengals QB Carson Palmer sealed an opening-day victory for the Jets back in 2004.
"I remember the series before, I got beat for a touchdown by Chad Johnson," Coleman recalled today. "It was my first game and I didn't really know what to think. I came to the sidelines with my teammates and they got me back into it. I came back and got an interception at the end of the game. It was a relief and did a lot for my confidence, knowing that I could play football in this league."
It was a good beginning for Coleman, who also earned AFC Rookie Defensive Player of the Week honors for his effort. He's been a regular in the defensive backfield ever since, starting 48 more times at safety over the course of his three-plus seasons.
But Coleman was missing from the Jets' starting lineup the past two games. After the team's flight home from Buffalo on Sept. 30, he experienced concussion symptoms. He didn't practice the following week and missed his first NFL game on Oct. 7.
His normal routine was disrupted. He was accustomed to joining his teammates at a New Jersey hotel for meetings the night before every game at the Meadowlands.
"First of all, it was kind of weird not being at the hotel on Saturday," Coleman said. "I just went and got a bite to eat with my girlfriend and then just sat at the house and watched television."
The next day was even tougher. As the Jets squared off with the Giants at the Meadowlands, Coleman watched helplessly.
"On Sunday, I went to my girlfriend's house and watched the game. I yelled at the TV the whole time," he said. "It was weird — I've never seen us play on TV. It was hard to watch, especially when things started going bad for us and we ended up losing. It was tough, but I can't really control when I get hurt."
Eric Smith replaced Coleman, lining up with Kerry Rhodes as the last defense. The second-year safety stepped up on the game's third play, breaking up an Eli Manning pass intended for TE Jeremy Shockey. Smith finished the game with a career-high 12 tackles.
"Eric definitely did a good job. Eric is a very good player and he knows the game," said Coleman. "I was confident and the coaches were confident that he was going to do a good job."
The 25-year-old Coleman returned to practice the following Wednesday and by Thursday he was cleared for contact and ready to go. Smith got his second consecutive start against the Eagles but had an inauspicious beginning, missing the tackle on WR Kevin Curtis on a 75-yard pitch-and-catch from Donovan McNabb.
Shortly after, Coleman was inserted into the game. But that had been the Jets' plan all along.
"It was predetermined before when I was going to go in the game, so it didn't have anything to do with the touchdown," Coleman said. "Coach told me I was going to go in on the third series, so I went in on the third series and tried to make the best of it when I got in there."
He did just that, recording nine tackles, including seven solo stops.
"There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to be tentative or anything like that. I was just excited to go out there. I had so much energy built up after not playing the week before and not starting," he said. "I just wanted to go out there and help the team — make a tackle, do something."
Quietly, the 5'11", 200-pounder has become a tackling machine for the Green & White. Even though he's played in just five games and made four starts, he leads all defenders with 44 tackles.
"I like to play hard and get in the mix. Fortunately the defense allows me to be involved," he said. "I love to come up and tackle. It's just me doing my job."
He'll be busy this weekend. The Bengals own the NFL's second-ranked passing offense (284.4 ypg) and Coleman is very familiar with Cincy's big three. At Washington State he played against former Oregon State WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in addition to Southern Cal QB Carson Palmer.
"They have some great receivers and a great quarterback who can throw the ball to them. It's going to be fun to go up to Cincinnati and play in that crazy environment," Coleman said. "It's going to be a fun game."