NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) – Go ahead, double-team one of the big names. Dustin Keller may just make you pay.
While opposing defensive backs are paying extra attention to Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason this season, the Jets tight end zips around the field and takes advantage of what has become a clear mismatch.
“I’ve always been extremely confident,” Keller said. “I don’t want to say I’m even more confident than before because that’s always been a mismatch for me, and as long as I continue to see those looks, I think I’m going to get the better of those guys. And then when people try to shut that down, I think it’s going to open things big-time for the guys on the outside.”
On a team with a trio of big-name receivers, Keller has been Mark Sanchez’s go-to guy through two games, leading the Jets with 11 catches for 162 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s just such an athletic guy,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “He’s such a problem for linebackers and safeties. He has such great ball skills. He and Mark have, obviously, a great chemistry and he’s just one big play after another.”
Brett Favre predicted the tight end would be a big star when the two were teammates in 2008, and Keller might finally be on his way in his fourth season. Not that he hasn’t been good since being a first-round draft pick out of Purdue. Keller entered the season with the most catches (148) and yards receiving (1,744) by a Jets tight end in their first three years.
“He’s kind of the model of the tight ends in the league now: the athletic, the pass-catching type,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “The days of the Mark Bavaros and those type guys, those guys are few and far between now. … I think Dustin is more of the newer breed where you almost treat him as a wideout.”
LaDainian Tomlinson played with one of the best tight ends in the game in Antonio Gates while he was in San Diego. A former basketball player, Gates used his size – he’s 6-foot-4, 260 pounds – to dominate opponents.
“Dustin, his speed, that’s one of the qualities that he possesses that’s better than most tight ends,” Tomlinson said. “To be able to run down the field or threaten people with his speed, his quick cuts in and out of breaks.”
That was on display last Sunday against Jacksonville, when Keller had six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.
“He just demanded a lot of split-safety coverage and our wideouts knew that,” Sanchez said. “Dustin was able to get free in there a couple of times and make some great catches in some zones and sit down and find the football. Our wideouts demand a lot of respect in the passing game, so it could be a good day for Dustin when that happens.”
Keller has also been a clutch receiver this season, which is already shaping up as a breakout year after leading the team with 55 catches a year ago. Nine of his 11 receptions have gone for first downs.
“I feel really good, not just about any stats or anything like that,” Keller said. “I feel like Mark is really playing his butt off. I feel like he’s going out there and reading things out and finding the open man. They matched me up on a linebacker last week, so more times than not, I was always the open man, especially with the guys on the outside being doubled.”
When the Jets re-signed Holmes to be the team’s big-play threat and then signed Burress and Mason, Keller didn’t worry about his catches diminishing. If anything, he thought, those guys being on the field would make things easier for him.
And he’s been right so far. Burress was held without a catch against Jacksonville, the result of being double-teamed nearly the entire time when he was out there.
“We still scored 30 points and I didn’t touch the football,” Burress said. “I mean, Dustin Keller is too good for teams to play us like that. I think that’s what they’ll find out if teams continue to do that.”
One of the biggest knocks on Keller coming out of college was his blocking skills, something he has worked on a lot in the last few years. He has improved to the point where he no longer needs to come off the field when the Jets run the ball and need their tight end to hit someone.
“I’ve been able to get bigger in that area and step up my blocking and they can’t overplay me on one thing,” Keller said. “Obviously, they still lean toward the pass, but that just makes it easier for me in the running game to get guys unexpectedly, get my hands in there and after I do that a couple of times, run my route and it definitely plays to my advantage.”
And if teams start focusing on Keller and hold his reception numbers down, starting with Oakland on Sunday, that’s OK with him.
“If I go out the next game or two games and have zero catches, but the offense averages the next two games 500 yards of offense, who cares?” he said. “We’re playing well, we’re moving the ball and we’re successful, and that’s all that matters.”
Notes: Special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff has a lot of respect for Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler. “That’s Mantle and Maris there,” he said. “Heavy hitters.” … Westhoff said kicker Nick Folk, punter T.J. Conley and long snapper Tanner Purdum practiced at the Newark Bears’ baseball field to simulate the conditions of the Raiders’ O.co Coliseum, which is shared by the Athletics. … CB Antonio Cromartie will continue to be “the guy” on kickoff returns, with Joe McKnight backing him up.
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