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Jets need Jeremy Kerley to come up big again

Jeremy Kerley (11) and Bilal Powell (29) celebrate

Jeremy Kerley (11) and Bilal Powell (29) celebrate a touchdown by Kerley during the first half of a game against the New England Patriots. (Oct. 20, 2013) Credit: AP

The cameras descended upon Jeremy Kerley in the locker room as a crowd of reporters focused their attention on the Jets' 5-9 slot receiver.

Again, Kerley is here, headlining an unproven receiving corps for the second straight season. And again, he seems unaffected by all of the attention.

"I don't worry about that," he said when reminded that he isn't yet a household name. "That's life. I'm always underrated. It's all good."

On paper, it might appear as though quarterback Geno Smith has only retreads and no-names at his disposal. But last week's overtime win over the Patriots was proof that Marty Mornhinweg's patchwork offense can deliver results.

The Jets (4-3), however, will need a superior performance from Smith and Kerley to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati Sunday. They'll be without Santonio Holmes (who hasn't played since Week 4 because of a hamstring injury), and center Nick Mangold (ribs) and tight end Jeff Cumberland (hamstring) are both nursing injuries. They'll also have to figure out how to be productive against defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

Smith's rookie campaign has gotten off to a good start, but the Jets have yet to win back-to-back games, and Paul Brown Stadium won't be an easy environment for the road team to escape with a victory. The Bengals have the ninth-best defense in the NFL and are eighth against the run and 13th against the pass.

But if last week's win over New England was any indication, Kerley could prove to be a big key. The slot receiver believes he's a game-changer.

Sure, Stephen Hill was the Jets' second-round pick last season. But it's Kerley -- a fifth-round pick out of TCU in 2011 -- who's emerged as Smith's most trusted weapon, quietly leading the Jets in receptions (24) and receiving yards (319).

Six of his eight receptions (including a 12-yard touchdown) in last week's 30-27 overtime victory came on third down. It was the most third-down conversion catches by a Jets receiver since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, according to the team.

"Jeremy and I, we've been doing a lot off the field," Smith said of Kerley, who, despite missing Week 2 against the Patriots, is tied for second in the NFL with 15 third-down receptions.

" . . . It's kind of like a symbiotic relationship; he's thinking one thing and I'm thinking the same. When we're on the same page, it's kind of hard for defenses to stop us."

Receiver David Nelson also stepped up last week, catching four passes for 80 yards. Newly signed kick returner/wide receiver Josh Cribbs received a game ball in his first outing as a Jet.

"He helped us win that ballgame," Mornhinweg said of Cribbs, who was used on special teams, as a wideout and in the Wildcat.

Kerley was the Jets' primary punt returner the previous two seasons. Asked if he's happy to have some of his special-teams load removed from his shoulders, he replied: "I'm a tank. I don't care what's thrown at me. I'm ready for everything."

He's come a long way since 2012, when he began the season in Rex Ryan's doghouse and wound up leading the Jets with 56 receptions after injuries to Holmes, Hill and former teammate Dustin Keller.

"Kerley was a huge part of what we were going to do offensively [against the Patriots]," Ryan said. "He made the plays during practice, and when we got to the game, it was no different. We've seen games like that from him before, so it's really no surprise, but he's certainly a weapon for us."

Kerley's short-area quickness and attitude set him apart from most receivers. Asked if he was surprised by his production last week, he said matter-of-factly: "Every third down, I feel like the ball's coming to me, as [is the case] with every play. So I just made sure I made the catch, secured the position and got the yards."

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