Special Concerns? Jets punting units show struggling signs n 2-game stretch

Jets roster update
New York Jets place kicker Greg Zuerlein (9) kicks a field goal against the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

FLORHAM PARK — New York Jets punter Thomas Morstead knew that love and appreciation for special team units can be short-lived. 

Two weeks after winning the Special Teams Player of the Week for his impact in the team’s latest win, Morstead and his unit have had some issues in previous contests. Against the Chargers on Monday night, New York’s punt team gave up an 87-yard touchdown. A week later, the unit gave up over 16 yards a return to a solid Raider’s unit. 

While some may think that the last two weeks have been a case of a punter out-kicking his coverage, special teams coordinator Brant Boyer has said otherwise. 

“I think it’s a concerted team effort,” Boyer told AMNY. “When things like that happen, something breaks down. That’s not a good enough job coaching. That’s not a good enough job by anything. That’s not up to our standard. So, it doesn’t matter what the problems were, the bottom line is we got to get it fixed.”

It’s been quite the turnaround for the Jets special teams units as a whole. Both Morstead and kicker Greg Zuerlein are still on All-Pro trajectories in 2023, but poor kick returns and coverages have also hurt the entire team as a whole.

A big reason for the recent surge of struggling play has been undrafted rookie Xavier Gipson coming back down to earth. Since his game-winning punt return against the Bills in the season opener, the Stephen F. Austin product has not recorded a return of longer than 24 yards in the last three games. 

Jets takeaways
New York Jets wide receiver Xavier Gipson (82) celebrates after running a punt return back for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in overtime of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Those struggles could be more than just the NFL figuring out a young player though.

“I think that there’s a lot that goes into those returns,” Boyer explained. “Obviously, he’s got to have 10 guys blocking for him and that was a breakdown. I wouldn’t say that he’s been bad by any means. I think that, like I said, I think he’s as talented as a guy that we’ll face all year.”

When a play like Sunday night’s return that saw the rookie fail to reach the 20-yard line happens, most people will look to blame the returner only. Boyer, on the other hand, takes full responsibility for the struggles that the Jets have seen. 

That’s a breakdown in blocking and coaching. We got to coach better, like I said when things like that happen when you get tackled inside the 14-yard line or whatever it was, that’s not good enough for our standard as a group.”

Much like the Jets offense, changes have come for the special teams unit as well. With the release of Michael Carter, fifth-round rookie Israel Abanikanda will expect to play a key role as a returner on kickoff and potentially with other spots. 

“He is an awesome kid,” Boyer said of Abanikanda. “Done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s getting reps at a lot of spots. We’ll see where he fits in best. The young players that have been working here and have a familiarity with the schemes and things like that that we’re doing, it’s a gradual deal to how many reps they get and everything like that.”

The Jets certainly have bigger problems on their hand outside of their punting unit. But as important as they’ve been in the first few weeks of the season, their struggles stand out in a big way. As long as the offensive side of the ball continues to struggle, the pressure will be on every other unit to play above their usual expectations to keep Gang Green in the game.

For more New York Jets news, turn to AMNY.com