The New York Jets probably thought there would be a deficiency in their special teams when they lost their kick returner, Justin Miller, to a season-ending knee injury Sept. 16. Miller was selected to the Pro Bowl last season after returning two kickoffs for touchdowns.
Actually, it has resulted in an improvement.
Leon Washington, a smallish (5-foot-8, 202 pounds) running back from Florida State, has stepped in and returned three kickoffs for touchdowns, one short of the NFL record for a single season.
"He's a guy who has a knack for doing some positive things when he gets the ball in his hands," said Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden, who played with Washington at Florida State.
Washington leads the NFL with a 33.5-yard kick return average and is one of 11 players in league history to return three kicks for touchdown in a season. He has more touchdowns and a better average than Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs, who had kick returns of 90 and 100 yards against the Steelers last week, the latter for a touchdown.
Kick returns for touchdowns are headed for an all-time high in the NFL this season. Already there have been 16 returns for touchdowns after nine games, seven more than there were all of last season and just two shy of the league record (18) set in 1998.
Nobody has done it better than Washington, who needs one more to tie the NFL single-season record held by Green Bay's Travis Williams (1967) and Chicago's Cecil Turner (1970).
"He spends a lot of time studying the schemes, studying how they are going to attack us in terms of our kickoff return game, where we need to fit and how he is going to return the ball," Jets coach Eric Mangini said. "He can get up in the special teams meeting and give the scouting report on our opponent's kickoff return team. That is how much time he spends on it."
"He's been that way since I knew him," said McFadden, one of the members of the kick-coverage team who will try to stop Washington. "He was a guy who prepared himself and approached the game as a professional. You enjoy being around a guy who takes it seriously and is always ready to play."
One week after nearly losing to the Browns because of Cribbs' kick returns, the Steelers will try to contain Washington with a coverage unit that has allowed four returns of 42 yards or longer in the past three games and four of 52 yards or longer this season. The Steelers rank 27th in the league in kick coverage, allowing an average of 26 yards per return.
"The football gods are always kind to you," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, wryly. "When you are struggling in an area, we get presented with the opportunity to defend the best guy in the world at returning kicks right now, Leon Washington. [He is] great, and I mean that."
Tomlin said he wasn't going to have a "knee-jerk reaction" and make drastic changes in the kick-coverage personnel against the Jets.
The Steelers tried that against Cribbs, had him pinned inside the 5 after he muffed a squib kick, and he still scored on a 100-yard return.
The Jets can empathize. They gave up an NFL-record 108-yard kick return for touchdown to New England's Ellis Hobbs in the season opener.