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STS*: McKnight, Smith, Westhoff in the Spotlight

Posted by Randy Lange on November 5, 2011 – 2:13 pm

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

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Posted in Randy Lange | 11 Comments »

11 Responses to “STS*: McKnight, Smith, Westhoff in the Spotlight”

  1. By GaryC on Nov 5, 2011 | Reply

    Ah yes, Brad Smith, whenever the offense needed a jump start you can always count on him,whether returning a kickoff or running a wildcat,sure miss those days,On the game,if Maybin is in there and rushing recklessly watch the bills dump a screen right to his side,especially with cromartie the great tackler on that side also, might be a ton of yardage for the bills then.

  2. By dougmc on Nov 5, 2011 | Reply

    Miami is crazy…Westhoff was practically a hall of famer before he came to the Jets… joe McKnight…joe McKnight…joe McKnight

  3. By Jersey Rich on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    I often worry about the O & the D – But NEVER the ST play. Westy, it is GREAT to have you on our side!

  4. By Charliejet on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    Boy – Am I nervous about this one.. the adrenalin is flowing already and its only 9:30 A.M. (EST). I almost wish they had New England this week at home first.
    OK OK shrug it off Go Jets. Buffalo is so worked up now BUT deflate them early
    Bills can come down just as fast. A must, a must, a must GET STARTED FAST- that’s what Buffalo wants to do. Rex please don’t defer take the ball first – if you win the toss. Maybin baby – I know you want this but no mental errors or mistakes. ONE GAME AT A TIME…….
    Confuse Fitzpatrick – you have done it with brady and fitpatrick ain’t no brady.
    This IS a playoff game (wow at week 8).
    GO JETS……….

  5. By GaryC on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    I NEED A LIFELINE,cbs has a doubleheader and I am getting colts-falcons and Bengals-titans,where is meredith veira when I need her.Makes you wish the World Series was still going.

  6. By wayne on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    GaryC, doesn’t sound like you’re too happy the Maybin move seem to be a good one…..If the screen thing happens, it will not be the first time in recent history an RB or TE will have gashed this team. The Kid has added something this team was lacking: SPEED……Hopefully he’ll play a bigger role next week. Gotta see if he can shadow and take away one of those TEs. Can he cover?

  7. By wayne on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    I don’t see Jets losing this one if they are able to run the ball successfully and the turnover battle is even……GQ not giving the ball away to BUF secondary will be key……..DID THEY COME BACK WITH A SENSE OF URGENCY? IF THEY DID, THIS IS A LOSS.

  8. By wayne on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    I’m a Westhoff guy, but I have to say it one more time. Coach got it wrong this summer with the new KO rules…….If anything the rules have done nothing but highlight even more the value of good SP coaching………He was overly critical and negative about the new rules…………………..In fact didn’t see ONE positive opinion on this site about it………………..CEPT ME………………..Necessity is the mother of………………………..

  9. By GaryC on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    wayne, with the lack of pass rushers on this team I hope Maybin does workout,but let’s see him next year with a full training camp,who knows, maybe he beats out Pace or Thomas and he learns all the nuances of playing linebacker where he can play on a more regular basis.

  10. By wayne on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    The OC called a good game today………………..Sometimes, most times it about players executing…….This game was a glaring example of that.Mental errors…..This kind of execution next week will mean a loss……………..Need to say nothing bout that defense……..Their play said it all…………………

  11. By mariah on Nov 6, 2011 | Reply

    Miami fired him because Dave Wanstadt wanted to hire a friend from Chicago.
    The public relations department had to actually lie and say Westhoff undermined the team, as public opinion was so strong for Westhoff. Too bad Miami has never been any good since.

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