Leon Washington knows how to find success on the football field. Just take last Sunday's 28-24 victory over the Chiefs as an example. In the first quarter, Washington took a screen pass from Brett Favre, juked out two defenders and burst into the endzone for an 18-yard touchdown. One quarter later, the 5-foot-8 do-everything back was at it again. Washington grabbed a handoff from Favre, hit an open hole with his surprising power, and continued on for a 60-yard touchdown run. Add in a 37-yard punt return to set up the winning touchdown and there you have it. Washington did it all.
It was a wild week for the Jets' third-year running back, who yesterday received a ringing endorsement from Favre, a future Hall of Famer.
"I don't know that [anyone] would step into the offense and be productive after returning kicks the way he does. He's dynamic. He's very smart. Versatile is an understatement with him," Favre said. "He's quick as a cat."
From the time Washington entered the league back in 2006, as a fourth-round draft pick out of Florida State, the speedy back has found success. Washington has carried the ball 249 times over three seasons, gaining 1158 yards and nine touchdowns.
However, even more impressive is Washington's production as a punt returner, an area where he excelled last season with three touchdowns. Although Washington has yet to bring back a kick for six this season, Head Coach Eric Mangini already sees a noticeable improvement in Washington's return game.
"He's got a better feel for where the pressure is going to come. It's totally different from kickoff return, because you get to catch that ball clean," Mangini said. "On punt returns, you're counting on the outside guys, the hold-up guys, to give you a chance to catch the ball."
Washington's improvement comes with additional training in the offseason. Washington said he was trained by Jets' Special Teams coordinator Kevin O'Dea, who formerly held the same position with the Bears and worked with Pro Bowl returner Devin Hester.
"The main thing is catching the ball and knowing how to position your body in front of the ball...designing plays where we can get run blocking in front of me, so doing separate plays like that in the offseason and staying confident," Washington said of his offseason regimen.
But even with the rigourous offseason workouts, which earned Washington one of the team's offseason training awards, the production still needed to be returned with each return. While any crafty special teams coach can scheme a plan for returns, Washington said the success can be had through trust.
"A lot of it is scheme, but most of the time it's about placing trust in the guys in front of you," Washington said.
Mangini provided a similar answer, noting that the success can be attributed to both Washington and a well-designed gameplan.
"I would say it's elements of both and that's an area where Leon has really made a ton of strides," Mangini said of Washington's punt return abilities. "He was an effective kickoff returner very early on. The punt returns were slower to come, and now he's got a good feel for that. I think as a group, we've gotten better at that."
The Jets will need another big outing from Washington this Sunday if playoff aspirations are to remain among the AFC East's best. They travel to face the 5-2 Buffalo Bills, who will be hungry for a victory of their own after falling 25-16 to the Miami Dolphins last week. One of the big reasons for the turnaround can be attributed to quarterback Trent Edwards, who has completed 67 percent of his passes and has compiled a 92.9 quarterback rating.
In speaking of Edwards today, Mangini noted that Edwards reminds him of former Jet quarterback Chad Pennington because of "very efficient" passing and good decision making.
"Reminds me of Chad that way in very efficient at passing, makes good decisions and gets them in and out of some plays where it's a problem and into a better play and he's got a lot of poise for a young guy."
Right tackle Damien Woody was again excused from practice today for personal reasons, but will "definitely play" Sunday...Mangini said he has no updates on tight end Bubba Franks (hip), linebacker David Harris (groin) or safety Eric Smith (concussion). "It's going to be status quo here through the end of the week," Mangini said...Washington continued to return punts from Reggie Hodges, who was booming balls through a thick wind at the Florham Park, N.J. facility...Jay Feely connected on a 47-yard field goal attempt.
Low Turnover Rate a Concern?
With 9:29 remaining in the second quarter of the Jets' 26-14 victory over the Bengals on Oct. 16, Jets cornerback Hank Poteat blitzed Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and stripped him of the football. Linebacker Calvin Pace, who was trailing Poteat on the blitz, alertly jumped on the football for the recovery. After the fumble, the Jets' offense capitalized, as Thomas Jones scampered into the endzone for seven-yard touchdown rush. Now as the Jets' defense prepares for the first-place Bills, Pace's fumble recovery serves as a distant memory. Why? Well, over the last three weeks, it stands as the only turnover forced by the defense. While Mangini pledges the turnover battle as a key to success, he is not concerned with the defense's low production.
"The emphasis isn't the statistic. It's the process of getting those turnovers," Mangini said. "It's been a heavy emphasis on ball awareness, understanding where the ball is going to be, pressuring the football, being able to convert on those catches, as opposed to, hey we've got to get a lot of turnovers."
During yesterday's practice, Mangini said that the defensive backs spent extra time working on the JUGS machine, in which they emphasized the the technique of catching and securing the football.
Through seven games, the Jets hold a minus-six turnover ratio.
Ellis Rising to the Occasion
Some say Shaun Ellis can be the forgotten man on the Jets' defense. While the additions of Pace and nose tackle Kris Jenkins have stabilized the Jets' front seven and conerback Darrelle Revis continues to seal the Jets' secondary, defensive end Shaun Ellis is quietly off to one of the best starts in his nine-year career. Through seven games, Ellis has seven sacks, already surpassing last year's total of five. While Mangini believes that Ellis' production is a product of the Jets' new acquisitions freeing up the defense, he also believes that its a product of Ellis himself.
"I think it's a product of both where Shaun is able to do some things, that maybe he wasn't able to do as much last year, even the year before, the other nice thing about Shaun is we can play him inside at the nose [tackle] or one of those tackles or move him out to [defensive] end," Mangini explained.
Ellis' career-high in sacks came in 2003, when he recorded 12.5.
When the Jets face the Bills Sunday in Buffalo, Mangini knows one thing is certain, or uncertain that is.
"Played in Buffalo so many times where the weather report says one thing, and something dramatically different happens," Mangini said.
In short, the weather in Buffalo is entirely unpredictable. Thus if weather does impact Sunday's AFC East battle, Mangini knows it will be important to get the ground game rolling.
"The balance that's what we are getting to the last few weeks talking about the running game; that will become more and more important as the year goes on," Mangini said.
Through seven games this season the Jets are averaging 115 rushing yards per game, ranking them 15th in the NFL.
Mangini Knows Bowens' Tricks of the Trade
When linebacker David Harris limped off the field last Sunday with a hip injury, ten-year veteran David Bowens replaced him and recorded a sack. When asked what Bowens' strengths on the field are, Mangini quickly replied "intelligence."
"I think his strength, or a really significant strength, is his intelligence and he understands everything that's going on, and he's very savvy, as well," Mangini said. "He's got that veteran saviness that he can take a defense, understand what's happening, and then be able to anticipate the changes and attack the changes."
After recording 2.5 sacks in 16 games with the Jets' last season, Bowens has already surpassed the sack total with three sacks in 2008.
Out: K Mike Nugent (right thigh)
Did Not Participate in Practice: TE Bubba Franks (hip), LB David Harris (groin), S Eric Smith (head), RT Damien Woody (personal)
Limited Participation: TE Chris Baker (hip), WR Laveranues Coles (thigh), WR Jerricho Cotchery (shoulder), LB Cody Spencer (shoulder)
Did Not Participate in Practice: G Brad Butler (knee), WR Josh Reed (ankle), DE Aaron Schobel (foot)
Full Participation: QB Trent Edwards (ankle), S John Wendling (ankle), G Jason Whittle (thigh), CB Ashton Youboty (foot)