The Jets enter Sunday's home game against No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts looking to end a two-game losing streak. While losing streaks are never fun, the good news is that No. 81 for the Green & White should be back on the field.
Tight end Dustin Keller, Mark Sanchez's and the Jets' top pass catcher the previous two seasons, has missed the last four games recovering from a hamstring injury. He initially suffered the injury back on Aug. 26 in the preseason game against Carolina, then aggravated it in the season opener against Buffalo on Sept. 9 and hasn't played since.
"The way I play, everything needs to kind of be full-speed," Keller said after this afternoon's practice. "Coming off a hamstring, you need to kind of limit yourself and not go full-speed. I think at times, me personally, myself, I kind of pushed it too hard and it just kept giving me setbacks. So it's good to get that whole week of rest last week, and it feels really good now."
Prior to this season, the 6'2", 250-pounder had been exceptionally healthy, not having missed a game during his first four NFL seasons. Looking back, Keller probably wishes he would have sat out the Buffalo game to continue letting the injury heal. But he also understands he can't change the past.
"I'm no doctor or anything," he said. "I know I wanted to come back and I wanted to be there in the games, especially for the first one of the season. Did that give me a setback? I think so, a little bit. But you can never really tell with the hamstring. Some guys take longer than others, and it's just basically based off how you play. In order to be good, I have to be full-speed and that's what took me so long."
Without Keller, tight end Jeff Cumberland has stepped in and done a solid job in his absence. There have been some high and low moments with Cumberland on the field. A 27-yard touchdown reception, his first pro scoring catch, during the first quarter of Monday night's loss to Houston definitely classifies as the biggest highlight.
"I think he's handled it very well for the circumstances," Keller said of Cumberland's play.
While dealing with an injury is something Keller's obviously not accustomed to, he states he's been spending nearly seven hours each day going through treatment attempting to return.
"The trainers have done a great job," he said. "They've been working vigorously with me and I'm very grateful to them."
If Keller does return Sunday, it automatically gives the struggling Jets offense a boost. Now in his fifth season in the NFL, he's established himself as one of the league's premier tight ends and is a dependable receiving option for Sanchez. He finished last season with 65 receptions for 815 yards and five touchdowns.
"I don't know if I was out there what the big difference would be," Keller said, "but just to know that you see plays being run that you're normally in there for, it's tough to watch."
Keller has stayed in close contact with Sanchez during his time recovering. He hopes that when he returns it will ease things up for his quarterback.
"I do think that with me coming back," Keller said, "I feel like I know this offense pretty well, that I could be a lot of help."
As Indianapolis is coming off a big win over Green Bay, the Jets aren't overlooking them. Keller said he is impressed by the Colts' defense and that he and his teammates are very familiar with the opponent.
And while his long recovery process is almost complete, Keller said he was able to take away one positive from the experience.
"The away games, watching the games from home with my family, obviously spending time with my family is awesome," he said. "But I'd rather have it be a little bit different of a scene than watching the game. It's tough. It's tough not being in the locker room with your teammates, feeling that camaraderie, getting guys going, and I hope I never have to do it again, because it was miserable. But right now I'm feeling good, and that's what's important to me now."