In his mind’s eye, Dustin Keller is stationed in the slot and, by design, he is running a post pattern on the upcoming play. The receiver outside of him is running the same route, only deeper. The ball is spotted in the middle of the field and each of the receivers have a man covering them while a safety sits overhead.
As he continues with the hypothetical, Keller explains that he is not the primary receiver on this play, but that he is about to help break it open — an example that has often played out in reality over the last three seasons, showing why he is one of Mark Sanchez’s most reliable targets and why his absence has had such an effect on the Jets offense.
“Normally I would take my angle to make myself open,” Keller said. “But there, I’ll angle it just inside (the safety’s) shoulder so it grabs his attention away from where the ball needs to go.”
It took him a little more than a year with Sanchez to learn that creating opportunity for others is just as valuable as a reception, and that enduring a double team can be a weapon.
Keller said he now views it as part of his job description, one that has been responsible for a large portion of a functioning Jets offense. Of Mark Sanchez’s 26 touchdowns last season, Keller directly effected 15 of them, based on a coach’s film view of every play.
Whether it was catching the touchdown (five), drawing a double-team on the same side of the field as the receiver who caught the touchdown (six), drawing a triple-team while another receiver was able to break completely free in the end zone (two), selling a play action to keep a linebacker from dropping into coverage (one) or altering a route to draw a corner out of covering the backfield (one), he managed to operate in strength behind the scenes.
“Somebody is either running to cover him, or he’s finding a way to get open,” Sanchez said. “That’s just the way he plays.”
Sunday, the Jets offense takes on the Colts looking to break from its recent spell of anemia.
Without Keller, who played just 29 snaps before injuring his hamstring in the season opener, the Jets (2-3) are 28th in total offense, averaging 284.4 yards per game. Over the past four weeks, he has bounced in and out of the team’s game plan as the hamstring seemed to heal, then quickly recoil again. Now he is finally expected to make his return.
Keller joked that Sanchez said he missed him. It’s easy to see why.
“A tight end that can play the way he plays or Jason Witten plays or Rob Gronkowski plays, they cause matchup problems for a defense,” offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said. “It’s a nightmare. You always have a guy on your scout team wearing that guy’s jersey.
“Do you put a corner over there? Do you put a safety over there? How do you match up with that guy?”
Sparano had tried to answer that question as a head coach for the Dolphins, where Keller torched his Miami defense for 328 yards and four touchdowns over four seasons.
When he became the Jets offensive coordinator, Sparano took all the footage from last season and mashed together a cut-up of all the team’s plays that netted 20 or more yards.
He figured it was the best way to evaluate the quarterback and his relationship with certain receivers.
Keller was targeted the seventh-most times by a tight end in the league last year (109).
“The No. 1 guy on the team was Dustin,” Sparano said. “His role on the team is very valuable.”
Siphoning an offense through the tight end is a strategy Sparano likes because over time it opens things up for wide receivers to catch more passes.
Keller, though, began drawing attention rapidly to the point where his presence in the lineup was necessary — especially this season.
During his four-week absence, aside from the initial week after the injury, coaches would pencil him in as a starter and began to make alterations to the game plan based on how he was feeling.
As the hamstring condition continued to bother him, they would replace his name on the personnel board with one of three different options — Konrad Reuland, Jeff Cumberland or Dedrick Epps.
“You have to go under the assumption that Dustin is playing when you’re game planning,” Sparano said. “We need to put the game plan up accordingly, the ball has to run through guys like him.”
They miss that consistency and comfort that comes with knowing he’s on the field — only three passing touchdowns were completed when he was on the bench in 2011, according to an unofficial review of last season’s game film.
But more than anything, they miss the moments in action like the second Buffalo game last year when the team was trailing by seven points just before the half.
With Plaxico Burress split out to his left, Keller burst into his route with a linebacker in coverage and a strong safety spying overhead. When he hit the break on a 10-yard out, both of them followed and Drayton Florence, the cornerback covering Burress, flinched in Keller’s direction.
In that split second, Burress gained almost 2 yards of separation and hauled in the pass. Keller had his helmet off and was on his way to resting on the bench following the score when Burress finally got done receiving a horde of high-fives and hip checks.
“I know when there’s a route and I see certain coverage, I’ll turn from being the primary receiver to just making sure I grab a couple (defenders),” Keller said.
On the sideline, Sparano looks for players he can trust to come off the field and speak to him like a coach; explain the things he cannot see in terms that can lend to crucial alterations.
Keller will talk about the leverage certain cornerbacks and safeties are playing and where there are openings on the field. He would keep up the practice during daily team workouts, coaching Sparano on what situations he’s more likely to get open looks.
“The good ones … they’re the guys who don’t come to you on the sidelines and say ‘I was open on that play,’ ” Sparano said. “I say this jokingly but everybody is open on every play. But he knows ‘I’m drawing this coverage and I can take two here.’ ”
But as the injury continued to gnaw at him, Keller stopped watching from the sidelines and came to the team suite. He would stop in at halftime and tell his teammates what he was seeing, but it wasn’t the same.
When the team was on the road, that feeling of being unplugged felt worse.
“It was miserable,” Keller said.
On the field the offense reflected as much. Defenses were able to pick and choose as an inexperienced corps of wide receivers tried to sort it all out.
They were missing the one player who could get them open even if they didn’t know it. The one who could make an offense flow by just being on the field.
“It’s huge,” Sanchez said when asked about Keller’s return. “Huge.”