Dustin Keller a dedicated student of the tight end role

Dustin Keller of the Jets is chased down Dustin Keller of the Jets is chased down by Kevin Burnett of the Dolphins. (Oct. 28, 2012) Photo Credit: David Pokress

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The NFL is a quarterbacks' league. It's not a tight ends' league.

But some of the intrigue about Thursday night's Jets-Patriots game at MetLife Stadium surrounded the tight ends for the Patriots. And the Jets were looking for a big game from their own tight end, Dustin Keller.

Keller had his best game of an uneven season when the Jets lost to the Patriots in overtime, 29-26, on Oct. 21. He had seven catches for 93 yards and his only touchdown going into Thursday night.

For the Patriots, much was made all week about the broken left forearm suffered by All-Pro cult figure Rob Gronkowski, who is expected to miss four to six weeks. Should he have been on the field for an extra point that represented the Patriots' 59th point of a blowout win over the Colts? The debate rages on.

New England did welcome back tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has missed six games this season, including the last three, with a sprained ankle.

Keller said Gronkowski and Hernandez are part of a group of tight ends he watches on tape when he is looking for ways to attack a defense. Obviously, he didn't watch the Patriots' tight ends this week (he doesn't need to know how to attack the Jets' defense), but he has in the past.

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"It all depends what my options are," Keller said. "[Antonio] Gates, [Jason] Witten, Tony Gonzalez, for sure. I check those guys out and see what worked and what didn't work and try to get a good feel for it that way. I look at all these guys when I'm watching film. I watch the top tight ends to see how those guys handle the defense."

Keller said he spends less time watching Gronkowski.

"I just have a different skill set," he said. "I think mine is a lot different than Gronkowski. Hernandez you could say is similar, but I do look at a lot of things when I'm watching them. It doesn't matter if they're a first-year player or a 10-year player, if I see something they're doing on film that I think is going to help, I'm going to use it. I try to pick up little things from any of the guys. I've watched the guys from New England on film and picked up a few things, too."

The Patriots have had as many as five tight ends on their game rosters this season; Thursday night they had four (Hernandez, Daniel Fells, former Giant Visanthe Shiancoe and Michael Hoomanawanui). Fells started in Gronkowski's place.

Tight end is a tough and sometimes unglamorous position. Sometimes you have to block, sometimes you have to catch passes, and it takes a certain "mind-set" to play the position, according to Keller.

"You've just got to be able to turn things on and turn them off," he said.

"By that, I mean sometimes you turn on being a little more physical. Sometimes you need to be more smooth and run your route, just more precise with things. Just being able to turn those things on and off each and every play is really important."

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