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Special Teams Seek a Second-Half Crescendo


For today's bye week Sunday, here is the third and final unit review of the Jets at midseason: the special teams.

Damien Woody, who plays on the field goal team, put it aptly after the Game 8 loss to Miami:

"This game," Woody said, "is a three-headed monster."

The three heads, needless to say, are offense, defense and special teams. In any given game, one or more of those heads can be terrible for the opposition to behold. Or one or more could be terribly difficult to overcome for victory.

The Jets "teams" worked both sides of the fence in the first eight games, which is one reason the Green & White are 4-4 at the midway point.

Some games the specialists were super-special. Jay Feely was 3-for-3 on field goals in the gotta-have-it triumph over the Patriots in Game 2. Jason Trusnik (since traded) and the team of Eric Smith and Larry Izzo combined for kick coverage takeaways the next week against the Titans. Izzo came up with another muffed punt early against the Bills, rookie Jamaal Westerman ditto against the Dolphins. The coverage swarmed over the Raiders, who on average started their drives at their 18.

"I think special teams has been a big part of us winning those three games early in the year," said Weatherford.

But then came Weatherford's mishandled snap that prevented Feely from trying a game-winning 50-yarder in overtime in the loss to the Bills (leading to Kellen Clemens becoming Feely's holder). And Ted Ginn's two field-length kickoff returns in a seven-minute span of the third quarter against Miami left coordinator Mike Westhoff in a funk.

"We gave them the game, in my opinion," Westhoff said the day after the 30-25 home loss to the Dolphins. "That made a difference in the game, those two plays. If they don't get those plays, they're not going to win the game. When I look at, the one we had him tackled on the 15-yard line — make the tackle. The other one, if we set the edge, he can't get to the 20. If we had him on the 18 and the 20, I'd probably be pretty happy today. We didn't. I'm not."

Add the loss of Pro Bowl kick returner Leon Washington for the season after he suffered his broken leg in Game 7 at Oakland and the specialists' prognosis for the second half could be viewed as mixed.

But it doesn't have to be. There are plenty of big players left to turn in big plays down the stretch. Wallace Wright continues to lead the pack underneath kicks with his 11 tackles and along with him is a combination of strength (Eric Smith, James Ihedigbo, Marques Murrell, Westerman) and speed (Ahmad Carroll, Drew Coleman, Marquice Cole and Danny Woodhead).

For kick returns, the recall of Justin Miller to replace Washington was intriguing — one Jets Pro Bowler in '09 coming in for another, who replaced the first back in '07. And on punt returns, Jim Leonhard has had some fits and starts as well in averaging 8.2 yards per return, but there are times he definitely appears to be getting his Ravens feet back under him (he averaged 11.6 per return last year at Baltimore).

When it comes to kickers, Feely has given the impression since summer that he's going to make his own Pro Bowl statement. He hit his first 10 field goals this season, breaking Pat Leahy's franchise-long streak from 1985-86, before his 44-yard miss vs. Buffalo ended his streak at 24 in a row.

But Feely has still hit 13 of 15 tries, an 86.7 percent accuracy that is the Jets' best in the first eight games since 1990. And despite a low kickoff (3.65-second hangtime) on Ginn's first return, Feely has provided the Jets' best kickoffs in at least the last five seasons in terms of kicking on average to inside the opponents' 1-yard line and in end zone kicks (20), touchbacks (6) and inside-the-20s (6).

Steve Weatherford's been an interesting cat, and that's not just because of his tats and his heptathlon athleticism that enabled him to run to two first downs on fake punts, at Miami and Oakland.

Weatherford's punting has been up and down, just as had a lot of the candidates this off-season and preseason before he won the job. But he's got an unofficial average hangtime of 4.4 seconds that is the best since December 2006, when Ben Graham began to lose altitude, and Weatherford's 37.0-yard net average, while not in the Shane Lechler stratosphere, is good enough to get it done, especially if he can maintain it in the Meadowlands wins of November and December.

Need we add that the kicking game's function will be optimized by James Dearth, who remains one of the best long-snappers in the game? And may we remind that Brad Smith, a key teams contributor who missed the last three games with a quadriceps injury, should be back and ready to roll for Jacksonville a week from today?

"I see the talent we have and the character we have in this locker room," Feely said in the gloom of the Jets' locker room following their loss to Buffalo. "I think we'll go out and find a way to turn our season around."

That goes for the Jets as a team and the Jets as a special teams unit.

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