Kickoff returns and kickoff coverage will be under the Green & White microscope Sunday at Buffalo.
Joe McKnight, packing an NFL-leading 40.3-yard kickoff return average and coming off of Thursday’s announcement that he is the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for October, will be trying to crack the Bills’ coverage unit, fourth in the league in opponents’ return average and sixth in opponents’ average start after return (20.1).
And when the Bills drop back for Nick Folk’s kickoffs, it’ll be Brad Smith in the end zone. Jets fans all know what Smitty can do, although the Buffalo approach to running kicks out of the end zone has been conservative and has led to Smith averaging 20.6 yards on only five returns. And he’ll be trying to slice through the Jets’ coverage, which is second in the NFL in opponents’ average drive start (19.5) with a league-high 14 inside-the-20 starts.
Can you say key matchup?
Jets ST coordinator Mike Westhoff said this week that at first, when McKnight replaced Antonio Cromartie for the final return at Oakland, he didn’t expect him to blossom into his latest monster returner.
“Now as I watched Joe develop and saw how hard he worked in practice, and you do see that speed and ability, then yes, then I believed he could do it,” Westhoff said. “He deserves the accolade but there’s a whole group of guys that when they go out they have a firm belief and they practice exceptionally hard. So I have a lot of confidence in them. To me it’s a singular award but it ends up showing what a whole group can get done.”
Many of those blockers also opened those seams for Smith to rip through last season, when he came in second in the NFL with his 28.6-yard average. And many of the Jets cover men haven’t had a chance to take a whack at Smith before as they may get to do Sunday.
“I talk to Eric [Smith] all the time and I thought I told him he’s not allowed to hit me,” Brad said about Eric’s offer to hit him on the opening kickoff. “I’m looking forward to seeing him. It’s going to be different. They’re football players that know what they’re capable of. Special teams is a really good unit and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Smith said the philosophy of Buffalo and its ST guru, Bruce DeHaven, is different than Westhoff’s approach of “We run ‘em from the bleachers.” The Bills have taken touchbacks on 25 of the 31 kickoffs they’ve received, an 80.6 percent rate that’s highest in the NFL. And all TBs plus returns have given them an average drive start of their 19.2-yard line, next-to-last in the league.
“It’s tough, if I’m being honest with you, knowing we can make plays,” Smith said, “but at the same time it’s more about the team. There are times when you can take a chance and hit a couple but at the same time, you get tackled at the 10- or 15-yard line, that hurts the team. So we have to be smart back there. We’ll do our best.”
There’s no question all returners get to do their best under Westhoff, who head coach Rex Ryan touted for the assistant coaches’ wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This prompted my good friend Rod Boone of Newsday to ask the coach if he’d rank those seven returners he’s had since 2002 who have run back at least one kickoff for a touchdown. “Someday maybe I’ll rank them,” said Westhoff. “I don’t want to do that right know. Each guy’s different.”
Yet while he put off the ranking, he still provided a skinny on most of those returners:
McKnight — “The thing that Joe’s done the best, that he’s doing right now very well, is he’s believing in his reads. As he hits it, he hits it really hard. … Unfortunately last week he didn’t believe in his second read [vs. San Diego]. They only had one guy who could’ve tackled him and he runs the other way. He could’ve [scored] easily. But that’s what he’s done well and he’s gotten better and better at it.”
Smith — “Brad would see things a little bit and then burst.”
Leon Washington — “Leon was just a real natural running back who had great running skills.”
Justin Miller — “He had incredible speed. He just exploded. Before you knew it, he was past you.”
One thing Westhoff took playful issue with Smith on was about Smith saying of Westhoff on his conference call with Jets reporters this week that “Sometimes he can be very harsh.”
“I was disappointed he said that, to tell you the truth,” the coach said. “I don’t think I’m harsh … I don’t know, maybe I am.”
Maybe “gruff” fits Westhoff better. Gruff but always with the ulterior motive of optimizing his players’ individual skills and his team’s ability to win a particular game. He used to guide Smith, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his two years handling that job. Now on Sunday Smith will be the bad guy in white with blue and red trim that the Jets want to shut down, McKnight, the good guy in green they want to turn loose.
That’s the Westhoff way.
*Special Teams Saturday
Tags: Brad Smith, Bruce DeHaven, Eric Smith, joe McKnight, kickoff returns, Mike Westhoff
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