During the bye week we're presenting midseason reports on the three phases of the Jets attack. Today: Special Teams:
Mike Westhoff and the Jets' special teams have fostered the reputation of being one of strongest groups in the NFL. Since joining the Jets in 2001, Westhoff's unit has led the league with 15 kickoff-return touchdowns. In 2011, the teams are at it again, ranking at or near the top in several categories.
This bye week Westhoff handicapped his group, offering midterm assessments of his kicking, coverage and return units.
On the Cusp of Folk Lore
K Nick Folk and his steady foot have been as consistent as anyone in the NFL through seven weeks. One of five kickers in the league to maintain a perfect 100 percent field goal percentage, Folk has converted all 10 of his attempts. That also ties the franchise record for most successful FGs without a miss to start a season, held by Pat Leahy (1986) and Jay Feely (2009).
"The big thing for Nick is to just be consistent with his technique," said Westhoff. "Sometimes he can get all over the place. He's worked very hard on that. Then he found a real comfort level with Mark [Brunell] as his holder, and that's made a difference."
Folk spent much of his offseason working out near his home in California, and Westhoff said he came to training camp in much better shape than he had in 2010. Folk was then embroiled in a kicking competition with Nick Novak, who was later cut and then signed by the Chargers.
Folk "actually started off training camp a little bit slow, and then he got better and better," said Westhoff. "I think the biggest improvement — there are two big things. One, he's being consistent with his technique. Then two, his kickoffs. He redid his approach, and he's just done an excellent job."
Thanks to Folk and his relentless kick-coverage unit, opponents are starting drives with miserable field position, on average at their 19.5-yard line, second-best in the NFL. Additionally, 14 drives have started inside the opposing 20-yard line, the most in the league.
"He'll try to get a touchback wherever he can," said the coach. "His hang time is good, and the fact that people are enticed to bring the ball out, even though the ball is minus-4, minus-5, minus-6 — that's a pretty good kick for us. Then the problem is they have to return it against us, and we're pretty good."
Conley's Continuing Improvement
First-year punter T.J. Conley was also entangled in a summer position battle with Aussie P Chris Bryan. According to Westhoff, Conley fell behind early. He later regrouped and outperformed Bryan, earning him the job. Seven weeks in, the coach sees both positives and negatives.
"Going in, he's been very positive. He's a young guy, and it's brand new," he said. "I thought against Miami he had an excellent game, and then we saw some valleys. But going in, with the pooch kicks, he's been very good."
Although Conley ranks 22nd in the NFL with a 37.9-yard net punting average, he is tied for third with 13 punts inside the 20-yard line — and six of those have been inside-the-10 punts. The ability to pin opposing offenses deep in their territory is vital for every team but is arguably even more important for the Jets. The suffocating defense can then take the field in hopes of forcing a turnover and handing the ball back to the offense in or near the red zone.
"That's where we want to get our defense on the field, inside the 10," Westhoff said. "He's been good at that. With a lot of guys, it takes time. We're really working and hoping it progresses, so we'll see how it goes."
Returns to Glory
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the special teams has been the performance of the kickoff return group. With Joe McKnight in the lead role, the crew is helping the offense start drives after kickoffs at the 27.6-yard line, tops in the NFL.
For 2011, a new rule demands kickers launch the ball from their 35 as opposed to the 30. Many believed it would be the end of dynamic return teams. Touchbacks would skyrocket, touchdowns would plummet, and starting field position would generally be uniform starting around the 20-yard line.
Westhoff would have none of it.
"There's a secret formula, absolutely there is," he said. "I firmly believe in this particular system. If we can get a handful of the right kind of guys to block, I firmly believe in it. This group, it might be as good a group as I've had.
"These guys can block. Our best blocker might be Brodney [Pool]. He's just been outstanding for me. [Matt] Mulligan has done a real nice job, too. You put this group together and they've been very productive."
With hungry blockers ahead of him, McKnight has averaged 40.0 yards per return, by far the highest number in the league. No. 2 is the 49ers' Ted Ginn at 31.8.
"Joe's got the talent and he's got the speed, obviously. He's running very hard," Westhoff said. "For as well as he's done, he hasn't broken a tackle yet. He made a guy miss, but he hasn't broken a tackle. Say what you want, but these guys can block. Joe's brand new at this, but he's done an excellent job."
Improvements Still to Be Made
Head coach Rex Ryan had high praise for his specialists when he was asked how often he stresses "60 minutes of football" to his team.
"We do a bunch," Ryan said. "I think the big part is we have done it in spurts, but it hasn't been a consistent thing where the offense has dominated, the defense has dominated and special teams has dominated. The only group that really has done it every game, it seems like, so far on a consistent basis, would be the special teams."
Despite that, Westhoff believes there are still improvements to be made. When he sits down to grade the special teams after a game, he takes a very basic approach but one that truly determines what kind of day the group had.
"We have to react to the circumstances that have been dictated. I want to win that circumstance," he said. "I want to see if we can do everything as a unit, 11 guys, grading positively and winning the circumstances presented. At the end of the day, I want to win every one."