It was a play that didn’t end up in the box score and was probably ignored by most fans, but it was a momentum-shifting moment in the Jets’ 27-11 win in Buffalo.
Following a Joe McKnight 59-yard kickoff return to the Buffalo 45-yard line, the Jets’ first drive after halftime went three-and-out as three Shonn Greene runs producing just eight yards. Punter T.J. Conley lined up about 15 yards deep, knowing exactly what he was doing and where the ball was going to go. Marquice Cole, one of the flyers lining up outside the hash mark at the 37-yard line, expected to make a special teams play. Cole, like his punter, knew where the ball was going.
Now in his third year in the league, it has become repetition for the product out of Northwestern. Cole went racing down the field and in a play that took just slightly over five seconds to develop, downed the ball at the one-yard line.
“I think Marquice is the best in the league at what he does. He’s the best at getting down there and making a play like that,” Conley told Metro. “It takes a lot of athleticism and skill to do that — make a play and down the ball there. It changes field position and involves incredible awareness. I’ve never seen anything like that, the way he can get down there and do that.”
It is a unique skill for Cole, a cornerback who has made his name as a special teams maven for the Jets. Last year in the fourth quarter of a Week 15 road win in Pittsburgh, Cole got on the end of a Steve Weatherford punt, pinning the Steelers on their own one-yard line. Linebacker Jason Taylor would tackle Mewelde Moore in the end zone for a safety on the next play, staking the Jets to a 22-17 lead and forcing Pittsburgh to need a touchdown on the game’s final drive.
It was another momentum changing play for a rising special teams star.
Cole chalks up his uncanny ability to practice and repetition. Even with Conley now replacing Weatherford this year, Cole has worked hard to forge a similarly strong understanding with his new punter.
“We work once a week on it, me with T.J. and [long snapper] Tanner [Purdum] and some of the other flyers, just after practice — trying to down the ball inside the 10-yard line. We worked on it a lot last year, me and Steve, we were like best friends and we working on it to really perfect it last year,” Cole said. “Now with T.J., I think we’re getting there, especially that end-over-end kick. Knowing where it is going to be, how he’s going to kick it and where it is going. It is paying off.”
The time after practice involves Conley punting about a dozen balls, aiming to have his punts drop inside the 10-yard line and hopefully right near the goal line. Along with the other flyers on the team, Cole will sprint down the field at full game speed and try to catch or stop the ball before it rolls into the end zone.
A lot goes through Cole’s mind when he is lined up and prepared to sprint some 40 yards down the field at full speed. Before the special teams unit steps on the field, they get the call from coach Mike Westhoff as to where to angle the direction of the punt — a decision often based on the wind pattern and potential gusts. At that point, Cole needs to figure out how not only to get down there and hopefully down the ball inside the 10-yard line, he also has the responsibility first and foremost to make a play on the punt returner.
As soon as he gets past the cornerback assigned to block his path down the field, Cole said he will look up towards the sky and begin following the trajectory of the ball. He must pick it out against the clouds and as it starts its descent his eyes will follow it against the backdrop of the stadium and the fans, perhaps even blending in with the late afternoon shadows. From there, Cole has to worry about the blockers who will “try to level me” and then attempt to get in behind the punt returner, who has probably pulled out from the play, hoping to let the ball drop into the end zone for a touchback.
And in a moment’s time, Cole must pull-up, twist his body around from a full spring and position himself to make a play on the ball. On Sunday afternoon, this entailed catching the ball just a yard shy of the goal line and controlling his body so as to not step or fall into the end zone.
“It’s nothing really special, I just want to go out there and make plays any time I’m on the field, just help the team out,” Cole said. “There isn’t anything more to it than that.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.