Friday’s practice was going smoothly for the Jets. Head coach Rex Ryan said it was one of the best days of practice they’d had all season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time with the trip to Foxboro, Mass. to face the 9-2 New England Patriots looming.
Then safety Jim Leonhard went up for a jump ball down the sideline with wide receiver Patrick Turner, and Leonhard didn’t get up. He had to be carted off the field because of a severe right shin injury he sustained during the play, which soon was diagnosed as a fractured tibia.
A few hours later, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff reacted.
“On the field, a lot of people do realize what an important part he was,” Pettine said later Friday afternoon. “He really did quarterback the back end. He was a big part of helping guys get lined up and he was usually a guy that was in the right place at the right time doing his job. That’s something that we are really going to miss.”
“When these things happen, everybody has to step up,” Westhoff said. “Everybody steps up and you have to implement different things. I’m used to it. I get it every week.”
In the secondary, safety Eric Smith will be the one to step up and make the playcalls, now starting alongside Brodney Pool. Special teams ace and fellow safety James Ihedigbo’s role will likely increase, as will the role for cornerback Dwight Lowery, who has been limited at practice this week but could make his first appearance since sustaining a concussion against the Browns.
On special teams, Leonhard was tied for eighth in the NFL with an 11.3-yard punt return average and was also an essential member of the kickoff coverage unit. His production was key, but Westhoff prides himself on being able to adjust.
In fact, former NFL Defensive MVP Jason Taylor volunteered his services this week on the punt return team as a rusher. That shows the sacrifice these Jets are willing to make, particularly on special teams. Westhoff has had three other veterans step up as potential options on the punt return team, all of whom could be potent weapons as the season heads into its stretch run.
“We like to play two deep sometimes,” Westhoff said. “So I’m sure I’ll get Jerricho [Cotchery] involved like he used to be. You’re losing an eighth-ranked punt returner in the NFL with Jimmy. That’s a loss. Jerricho finished close to that last year so he’ll get involved.”
Westhoff also noted that wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who has already made four game-changing fourth-quarter/overtime plays this season, and long-striding cornerback Antonio Cromartie have both asked for a shot at the punt return position.
“We are going to look at all of that,” Westhoff said, “and see what is the best and put together a package that best suits us. Jerricho is probably the steadiest and we may get him involved at two-deep with one of the other guys. It was a move that I was prepared to make anyway with Cromartie and give him that opportunity.”
No matter who ends up fielding punts, it will be difficult to replace the leadership, poise and communication skills that Leonhard brought to the table. Going up against Tom Brady and the vaunted Patriots offense, Leonhard would have been crucial. The Green & White will rise to the challenge, but most of all, the players in the Jets locker room are upset that their fallen brother is in pain and won’t be on the Gillette Stadium field with them on Monday night.
“I think a lot of it starts with off the field,” Pettine said. “He’s not just a great football player; he’s a great person. I think his personality is just tremendous, he’s a very funny guy, good-natured. I think he kept the room very light, was very quick to point things out, very quick-witted. That’s a big part of it, to me, is more the personal part of it, the off-the-field stuff.”
*Special Teams Saturday.
Tags: Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool, Jerricho Cotchery, Jimmy Leonhard, Mike Pettine, Mike Westhoff, Santonio Holmes
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