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Jets count on Weatherford to pin back Manning

The great intangible for the Jets could well be punter Steve Weatherford.

The X-factor for the Jets on Saturday won’t be the man under center, the return of Damien Woody to the offensive line or any of the defensive players who will be called on to limit Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. The great intangible for the Jets could well be punter Steve Weatherford.

It would seem odd that Weatherford has grown in importance this year for the Jets, but the argument can certainly be made that he is among the most valuable players on the team. His average punt of 42.6 yards is down below his career average but five year veteran punter’s metrics are all at career highs. It is those numbers and not his yardage per kick that matters most to the Jets.

Though he sees the field but a handful of times a game, the Jets aren’t shy to say that Weatherford, in fact, is a “game changer.”

All told, Weatherford led the league in the number of kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line with 42, a significant uptick from last year’s count of 25 such kicks. He was top 10 in the league in net yards, a number lifted by the fact that he was punting a more then healthy average of five times per game – well above the league average.

But it is Weatherford and his directional kicking that is most meaningful to this team.

“It’s something I worked on a lot this year, something I work on all offseason,” Weatherford said. “I knew the type of offense we would have, I knew we could move the ball and I knew that being able to angle the ball to make it land inside the 10 would be more valuable this year than last year. Last season, getting distance was more important; this year, I’ve had to angle things more.”

The extra additions to the Jets offense this year coupled with the continued maturation of quarterback Mark Sanchez means the Jets have become far more proficient at moving the ball down the field this year. Instead of being mired back in their own end of the field, the Jets are often punting closer to midfield, meaning that Weatherford is required to take a different approach in the punting game.

Two weeks ago in preparation for Chicago’s Devin Hester, perhaps the most lethal kick returner of his generation, Weatherford worked on simply getting as much distance as possible before the ball went out of bounds. He continually earned praise from special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff, who ferociously applauded each time one of Weatherford’s punts would go out of bounds. With a thud, his efforts hit the sides and top of the team’s headquarters, earning cheers from Westhoff.

Now, it is no longer kick the ball as far as you can and get as much hang time as possible – Weatherford’s game has had to adapt to the Jets offense. And no one has seen the honing of these finer points of Weatherford’s development than Jerricho Cotchery, who has returned a number of the punter’s efforts in practice over the past two years.

“I think about Jeff Feagles when I think about Steve this year. Feagles was one of the best at getting the ball deep inside an opponent’s 20,” Cotchery said. “He was great at directional kicking and Steve has really done a lot in that regard in working on that part of his game. He’s really, really good at it now.”

Weatherford said it is a point of pride for him, his 42 kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line tying the all-time NFL mark. While his net punting and average per kick may be very ordinary when stacked against other punters in the league, he said that being able to finesse a ball and get it near the other goal line is something that “maybe the media and fans don’t understand or appreciate.”

Three weeks ago in Pittsburgh, a Weatherford fourth-quarter punt landed inside the Steelers 5-yard line, pinning the home team deep in their own territory. On the next play, Jason Taylor made an end run and tracked down the Pittsburgh runner for a safety and a 22-17 advantage. The points preserved the Jets lead, forcing Pittsburgh’s offense to need a touchdown rather than settling for a field goal to tie.

“Steve has become a game-changer for us this year,” Coatchery said. “You look at how big that Pittsburgh play was for us. That’s what he can do now.”

And against a powerful, high-octane offense like the Colts unit the Jets will face on Saturday, Weatherford’s ability to win the battle of field position for his team could be crucial.

“It’s something to take pride in but it’s really all part of the team picture,” Weatherford said. “It’s about putting the other team in as bad of a position as possible and getting our defense in as good of a position as we can to get the ball back.”

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