The New York Jets’ wide receiving corps boasts a speedster in Santonio Holmes, a red-zone target in Plaxico Burress and a technician in Derrick Mason.
But none of those guys leads the Jets in receiving.
That honor goes to tight end Dustin Keller, who has caught 16 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Keller has become the focus of New York’s aerial plan – and the target of the Ravens’ defensive strategy.
“He’s their leading receiver,” inside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. “They flex him out so that he has room to work, and a lot of linebackers and safeties have trouble covering him. We’re well aware of what he does, and they set things up to make it easier for him to utilize his skills, and that’s running away from people and being able to make good cuts and run nice routes.”
Ravens fans may remember Keller most for being on the receiving end of a blow from inside linebacker Ray Lewis that broke up a pass and punctuated the Ravens’ 10-9 win against the Jets in last year’s season opener for both teams.
But several Ravens players said that Keller is a capable pass-catching tight end who can find gaps in defenses and be an option for quarterback Mark Sanchez.
“He obviously creates a lot of matchup problems because he’s a good receiver,” outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “He’s able to get down the field and make some big catches. Every team’s got their blocking guy and receiving guy, but I think the thing that sets Dustin apart is that his quarterback loves him. If he’s the slightest bit open, [Sanchez] is going to him. So he can be a big pain in the ass for a defense.”
Keller has been especially productive this season for New York. He leads the offense in first downs with 13 after ranking third on the team in that category with 33 last year.
Keller hasn’t compiled less than 60 receiving yards and five catches in a game this season. In the Jets’ 32-3 rout of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he gained 101 yards and one touchdown on six receptions.
Keller has thrived from his tutelage under longtime NFL assistant Tom Moore, who had worked for the Indianapolis Colts before being hired by New York as an offensive consultant.
Moore favorably compared Keller to Colts tight end Dallas Clark, telling ESPNNewYork.com, “He’s a great athlete, but the thing that really fires me up about him is his work ethic. He wants to learn and get better and better. He’s a tireless worker. He’ll follow you around the building, looking for ideas.”
Keller is blessed with deceptive speed and good hands, but Ayanbadejo, who is inserted on obvious passing situations, said Keller has an even greater strength.
“I would say it’s his route-running,” Ayanbadejo said. “He’s not necessarily going to go straight downfield and run away from you, but the way he runs routes, he’s able to separate himself from safeties and linebackers.”