Over the last few weeks it has been all hands on deck in the Jets' secondary, but heading into Saturday night's AFC Wild Card matchup against the Colts, the Green & White will be closer to full strength. They'll still be without safety Jim Leonhard who was lost for the season, but head coach Rex Ryan's team has regained safety Eric Smith from a concussion he sustained against the Dolphins.
"It's good to get back out here at practice and get back out there with the guys," Smith said. "It's going to be a challenge this week. It's going to be on everybody in the secondary, as much as they throw the ball, to be on top of their responsibility, so I'm looking forward to the challenge."
The injury bug bit the Jets in the same position. Leonhard broke his leg, James Ihedigbo has been hampered with a leg and knee injury, and Smith sustained his concussion. The Michigan State product has 54 tackles, a sack and two pass defenses on the season and has been vital in quarterbacking the defense in Leonhard's absence. The Jets will need him at full strength against Peyton Manning and the bevy of options he has in the passing game.
"I'm feeling good," Smith said. "I feel back to normal, I feel like that time off and that extra week last week, I was fortunate to get that going into Buffalo, already having the playoff spot. I feel that I'm good to go and I'm ready. I shouldn't have any issues."
The Colts have been without TE Dallas Clark and WR Austin Collie, who had combined for 996 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns before they were lost for the season due to injuries. In their stead, TE Jacob Tamme and WR Blair White have performed admirably, teaming up for 986 yards and nine touchdowns in the starters' absence. It will be up to Smith, the Jets linebackers and converted safety Dwight Lowery to stop those two.
"They've adjusted," Lowery said. "Tamme, he's been doing a good job stepping in for Dallas Clark and doing similar things that they do with Clark. And the rookie, Blair White, he's kind of taken the place of Collie. You have to look at guys for who they are and what they want to do with them and just go from there."
Tamme is a third-year man out of Kentucky and at 6'3", 236 pounds is quite a load for the opposition. The former fourth-round pick caught 67 passes this year, all of which came after the Colts' Week 7 bye. That's an impressive feat, the centerpiece of which was the game against Philadelphia in which he recorded 11 catches.
"He's a guy who has really stepped up and taken over that role that Clark had," Smith said. "He runs well for as big as he is and catches the ball well. He may not have the same abilities as Clark but he poses a threat in the receiving game."
The receiving game is clearly a high priority for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Just before halftime in the 2009 AFC Championship Game, the Jets had 17-6 lead over the Colts and appeared headed for their first Super Bowl appearance since they won the big game in 1968. But with 1:13 left in the half Manning completed the first of three touchdown passes en route to the 30-17 victory over the Jets.
In that game, many of Manning's throws went in the direction of Lowery, who was playing at cornerback. With this year's injuries, Lowery has moved to safety and seems much more comfortable with his role, recording an interception and recovering a fumble against the Bills on Sunday.
"It's a different position," he said. "You get to play the game a little bit more at the safety spot as opposed to playing corner. You get to see a lot more as a safety and make calls based upon what you see and you have more command of the defense than you do at corner."
With Lowery being able to see the entire field from the deep middle, it will be up to the cornerbacks to wrangle with the Colts' dangerous wide receivers. Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis will likely be manned up with Reggie Wayne, while Pro Bowl alternate Antonio Cromartie could flank Pierre Garçon. Across the board, the Jets feel a bit more secure in their defensive assignments in the secondary this season than they did last year.
"I expect it to be a good matchup," Revis said of the potential duel between Cromartie and Garcon. "It's a key matchup as well as me and Reggie. We're here. We can't back down. We can't not think about it. This is who we're playing this week and we feel confident in our matchups."