The Jets special teams have arguably been the most consistent unit all season. First-year returners Jeremy Kerley and Joe McKnight have enjoyed success as special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff draws up blocking schemes to spring the two loose in the open field.
Kerley’s numbers as a punt returner are not jaw-dropping. He’s averaging 9.4 yards per return. But he has proven to be a reliable option and has earned the trust and respect of Westhoff.
“I just have a feeling about him,” said Westhoff. “He’s a combination of sure-handed and explosive.”
With Kerley listed as questionable and a game-time decision for Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills, Westhoff may need to fill his spot. Kerley’s knee injury held him out last Thursday in Denver, leaving S Jim Leonhard to handle the punt-return duties.
In Week 10, the Jets used McKnight to return a punt in addition to Kerley and Leonhard. McKnight fumbled his only opportunity, leading to a New England field goal.
“Joe had been playing pretty well,” said Westhoff. “He came to me and said, ‘I can get this, give me a chance.’ We gave him a shot. I liked the enthusiasm, didn’t like the result.”
As a kickoff returner, McKnight leads the NFL by far with a 36.1-yard average. The temptation to use him as a punt returner in Kerley’s absence is natural, in the hope that his explosive running style will easily translate in returning punts. Still, Westhoff said McKnight likely won’t get another chance to return a punt this season.
“Probably not,” said Westhoff. “Jimmy is more sure-handed and Cro [Antonio Cromartie] wants to do everything. I would have loved to give Joe a whole offseason of practice. It doesn’t mean he’s not adept at it. It’s just not a role I’m comfortable with him in the meantime. I want him to be a kick returner, not a punt returner.”
McKnight put another ball on the ground in last week’s loss to the Broncos. Special teams fumbles are especially deflating, but Westhoff still puts his total support behind the young returner. McKnight’s confidence has increased exponentially since his rookie year, and it is translating into a potential Pro Bowl season.
“He’s trying, he’s really trying. If you want to be a kick returner, this is a good place to show up. Our guys block and they block. He works hard in practice and he’s leading the league,” Westhoff said. “I’m disappointed, frankly, that he doesn’t have more touchdowns.”
On Wednesday, Westhoff said Kerley would have to prove on Friday that he would be “ready to go” to return punts on Sunday. Kerley did not practice Friday, and his availability won’t be known until just before kickoff.
If there is no change in status between now and 11:30 a.m. Sunday, when the Jets’ inactives must be declared, Leonhard will return punts vs. the Bills. Still, Westhoff has seen head trainer John Mellody and his staff pull off miracles before, and he’s hopeful Kerley will be available.
“Jeremy is the guy we want,” he said.
*Special Teams Saturday
Tags: Buffalo Bills, Jeremy Kerley, joe McKnight, Mike Westhoff
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