As smoke filled the area in front of the New York Jets' tunnel at New Meadowlands Stadium, Jets safety James Ihedigbo shot out like a bullet with the intensity and excitement that would be warranted for a playoff game, not the third preseason game. A key part of the Jets' special teams unit, Ihedigbo raced to midfield and looked over to the Washington Redskins' sideline.
"It's a mentality that you're going to be begging for us to call the dogs off," Ihedigbo said. "You're walking into the lion's den. We're the team you don't want to play any Sunday. Just telling them they don't know what they've gotten themselves into."
Just minutes after that, Ihedigbo made the opening tackle of the game on the Redskins' kickoff return.
Throughout the Jets' 16-11 loss to the Redskins on Friday night, while the Jets' offense played inconsistently, the special teams were as impactful as the first defense. After another big tackle by Ihedigbo, Brad Smith and Marquice Cole caused Redskins punt returner Brandon Banks to fumble.
"I feel like we played pretty well today," Cole said. "We had our assignments down and executed pretty well. That's the plan, that's what you go out there for. You try to make plays, and I think we've been doing a pretty good job of making plays."
Cole, a cornerback who will be looking to make an impact both in dime packages on defense and as a flyer on the punt coverage unit, was all over the place. He got down the field and downed punter Steve Weatherford's Aussie-rules-style drop punt inside the 10-yard line, and came from behind to help knock the ball away from Banks on the fumble. Third-year defensive lineman Vernon Gholston was there to recover the fumble and give the Jets offense great field position.
"When we're out there on the punt return we have to work together," Gholston said. "I saw they were going with a wall return and I was trying to get to the outside of the wall. The rest of the guys came in swarming, they got to the ballcarrier and he dropped it out and at that point I was in position to scoop it up."
That fumble recovery is one of five turnovers that the Jets special teams have caused in three games, and the rest of their unit has been hemming in the opposition as well. Against the Redskins the Jets held kickoff returners to 13.3 yards per return. Weatherford had two inside-the-10 punts and almost had a third if Cole had been able to corral one of his difficult wobblers. Regardless, the special teams is forming an identity of its own.
"We have this high-powered offense, high-powered defense," Ihedigbo said. "How's special teams going to be? We're proving that this preseason. The regular season hasn't even started and we're only going to get better. Guys are going to go down and make plays and set the tone for the game."
Many of the players on special teams will make an impact for the offense and defense, including wide receiver Brad Smith and running back Joe McKnight. Smith returned four kickoffs for an average of 23 yards on each return and a long of 29, while McKnight took a punt return 27 yards, all the way to the Washington 31.
"We played OK," Smith said. "There's a certain level that we expect from ourselves as far as intensity and making plays. We were able to do a few things but there are things we need to clean up. But overall I think we had a pretty good day. I'm sure Coach Westhoff is going to find some things for us to correct when we get in the film room."
All of these players have ways in which they can improve. In the locker room McKnight was more focused on a fumble he had on offense than the exciting punt return he had. There are highs and lows for all aspects of the game but especially on special teams, where players are in the spotlight for only a few plays each game. It's the special teams' job to put a stamp on each contest early and often.
"This game is an emotional rollercoaster, it's a physical game," Ihedigbo said. "It's coming out and setting the tone of the game. It's intimidating when you see a group of guys that gather together, are motivated together and are ready to go to bat for each other. That can be intimidating to another team. We strive for that, to be a dominant force."