Miller is ranked second in the league in yards per kickoff return
New York Jets cornerback Justin Miller packs a powerful punch. The second-year pro from Clemson has emerged as one of the most threatening kickoff returners in the NFL due to his knack for assaulting opposing coverage.
"He has a chance each time he touches the ball to do something really positive," Jets head coach Eric Mangini said of his 22-year old Miller. "What I like about the way he runs is it is so aggressive and it's physical and it's tough and it's so attacking. He's a returner, but he's taking the fight to the opposition."
A sophomore slump appears to be out of the picture already for Miller, who set a Jets club record for most return yards in a season with 1,577 as a rookie. Miller has returned 25 returns kicks through seven games and his 103-yard dash to the end zone in week four against the Colts sits atop team archives as the longest return in club history. Miller is always a threat to light up the scoreboard and Mangini has witnessed improvement.
"I want him to continue to make progress in every area and he has," Mangini said of Miller. "It's nice in an area that he has a lot of production and he's excelled in, he continues to excel and continues to work at it. That's positive."
Miller isn't the only one who has caught Mangini's watchful eye in this, his first season as head coach. Mike Westhoff's special teams have received assistance from up and down the depth chart.
"I think there have been a lot of good things and there have been a lot of different people contributing," Mangini said. "If you look at some of the special teams awards winners – players of the week – Kerry Rhodes being the special teams player of the week this week and Brad Smith being that player one week. To me that is really outstanding because everybody is contributing and everybody is helping out."
The praise wasn't limited to just the players, either.
"Mike (Westhoff) does such a good job coaching our scheme and also game planning," said Mangini. "I think overall we've worked hard at it and made a lot of progress, and I'm happy with the contributions from a range of people there."
Speaking of range, punter Ben Graham mutilated the term in Thursday afternoon's practice. Admitting to having some wind at his back, the veteran Aussie banged out a punt that coverage teams only dream about.
"Ben Graham hit a punt yesterday that was impressive; it looked like it was fired out of a rocket," Mangini said. "Eighty yards in the air."
"Yesterday I had a good day at practice. I had a little wind at my back and we were backed up in the four minute drill, and I basically put the team I was punting for at that particular time in a good position," said Graham. "It was one of those situations where everything came together on that one kick. Everyday I seem to be able to let some of those rip, and I guess the challenge now is to constantly get those in a game."
Graham is tied for third in the NFL for pinning teams inside their 20 as 12 of his 33 punts have been downed inside the opposition's 20-yard line. With Graham's big left leg proving to size-up efficiently in the NFL, placekicker Mike Nugent's right leg has been perfect since week two. Nugent has connected on each of his last four attempts, one of which for 42 yards.
Perhaps more important this weekend in Cleveland for Nugent are his kickoffs. The Browns have one of the league's best return men in Joshua Cribbs, who averages 28.6 yards per return, which is less than a yard more than Miller. Cribbs was recognized by the NFL this season as the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after the Browns defeated the Oakland Raiders 24-21 in week four. In that game, Cribbs ran back kickoffs of 65 and 53 yards.
The Browns return man made headlines last season upon entering the league as a rookie free agent. His adjustment from dynamic quarterback at Kent State to all-around contributor in Cleveland in 2005 is similar to what fans of Green and White have seen from a specific Jets rookie this season.
"You'd have to say he's gone beyond expectations," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said of Cribbs. "How often do you see a quarterback come in, be a returner and a cover guy, and do it at a high level?"
If judging by these two teams alone, then fairly often. Brad Smith has made the highly publicized transition of marquee college quarterback to NFL everything. The rookie has lined up virtually everywhere throughout the offense and he has made big-time tackles on special teams. After the Jets beat the Dolphins 20-17 on October 15th, Mangini recognized Smith's versatility by naming him the club's Special Teams Player of the Week.
"Smith comes in and has a short yardage run on a short and one conversion. Then he goes down on kickoff and tackles the guy inside the 15," Mangini said following the Jets 20-17 week six victory. "He goes out and runs a route; that's good. That's great, I love that."
Smith's services will be called upon this weekend as the rookie will be part of coverage units designed ultimately to get Miller atop the leader board in kickoff returns. Stopping Cribbs will be atop the to-do list for Westhoff's crew.
"Joshua Cribbs is definitely a bright spot," Crennel said. "He makes things happen. If you are looking for bright spots, he's one of them."
Friday Injury ReportJets
Questionable: FB B.J. Askew (foot), CB David Barrett (hip), WR Laveranues Coles (calf), WR Tim Dwight (thigh), RB Cedric Houston (knee), & OL Trey Teague (ankle)
Probable:*RB Kevan Barlow (calf), *LB Matt Chatham (foot), *T Anthony Clement (back), *DE Shaun Ellis (back), *DL Bobby Hamilton (knee), *LB Brad Kassell (thigh), *OL Pete Kendall (thigh), *CB Justin Miller (hip), *QB Chad Pennington (calf), *S Kerry Rhodes (thigh), *DL Dewayne Robertson (hand), *WR Brad Smith (thigh) & *DL Kimo von Oelhoffen (knee)
Browns Questionable:CB Leigh Bodden (ankle), *S Justin Hamilton (ankle), WR Dennis Northcutt (ribs), *S Brodney Pool (hamstring), *S Brian Russell (ankle), FB Lawrence Vickers (elbow), *TE Kellen Winslow (knee)
Out:T Ryan Tucker (illness)