Cromartie to Jets: Put me in, coach

Antonio Cromartie to New York Jets: Put me in, coach. Anywhere.

Mike Westhoff did and the cornerback came through with a game-turning kick return.

Cromartie often works on special teams in Jets practices, volunteering to return kicks or cover them. Westhoff, the special teams coordinator, admits he rarely thought about Cromartie as a kick returner because Brad Smith ranked second in the league at 28.6 yards per attempt and with two touchdowns.

"My kickoff return depth chart is Brad, Brad and then Brad," Westhoff says. "Joe McKnight when he's active, and then (rookie) Kyle Wilson."

But when Smith injured his groin last Saturday night at Indianapolis in the wild-card round, it was Cromartie who returned a kickoff 41 yards. After the Colts went ahead 16-14 with 53 seconds remaining, it was Cromartie, not Smith, who took his position as kick returner.

"At the end," Westhoff says, "Brad was in the huddle (on the sideline) and we asked him, 'Can you go 1,000 miles per hour?' "

Smith's answer led to Cromartie making the return.

"I told Cro: 'You've got to get us to the 50. Get us to the 50 and we win the game.' "

Cromartie, showing a tremendous burst, sped through the Colts to the New York 46 — close enough to set up the winning drive.

Earlier in the week, the cornerback in his first season with the Jets after four years in San Diego, sought out Westhoff to emphasize his availability. Westhoff wasn't in his office, so Cromartie told assistant Ben Kotwica, "Give Mike a message for me. Tell him if he needs me anywhere, tell him not to look for anyone else."

Westhoff says he remembered just that and "he was the only guy I went to."

Westhoff hints that Cromartie also could return punts this weekend at New England.


STOPPING DEVIN: Seattle understands just how dangerous Devin Hester can be as a returner.

Hester nearly brought Chicago back from a 10-point deficit in the final minutes when the teams faced off in Week 6 in Chicago. Hester took a punt back 89 yards with less than 2 minutes left to trim Seattle's lead to three. The Seahawks recovered the ensuing onside kick and escaped with a 23-20 victory.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll was effusive in his praise of Hester, calling him the "best at what he does in history."

"So we have to be very clear about what our plan is, which is to stay on the attack on special teams and to stay aggressive," Carroll said. "We know that he's going to get the ball in his hands, so were going to have to do a really good job of pursuing, and scheme-wise, and the effort and everything — every phase has to be on the mark."

While Hester holds the NFL record for combined return touchdowns, Seattle will counter with Leon Washington, who is second all-time in league history with seven kickoff returns for TDs, including three this season.

"We do get a taste of that this week," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Here in the playoffs you look forward to the challenge and it'll definitely be a challenge for us to try and hold down a great returner like Washington."

Hester finished the season first in the NFL in punt runbacks with a 17.1-yard average and three TDs. Washington was eighth in kickoffs at 25.6, but his three TDs tied for the league high with Jacoby Ford of Oakland.


DOME SWEET DOME: The Green Bay Packers might be known as a team that plays in winter weather at Lambeau Field, but they also can make themselves at home in a dome.

Since Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy took over in 2006, the Packers are 10-5 in regular-season dome games. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has 10 career starts in domes, with a 66.8 completion percentage, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.

The Packers will face a tough test against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Saturday night, but offensive lineman Daryn Colledge figures if the Packers can handle the noise at the Minnesota Vikings' Metrodome, they can handle just about anything.

"I would argue the Metrodome is probably one of the loudest places to play in the country," Colledge said. "We have experience with loud situations, we know how to make the adaptations to play in a situation like that and make the adjustment. For us, it's another game. When we go on the road and we play in places like that, we tighten down as a group."


LeBEAU'S LAST? The question gets asked every season: Will this be Dick LeBeau's last as Steelers defensive coordinator?

LeBeau, long considered one of football's most innovative defensive coaches, would be 74 at the start of next season. That's hardly in Joe Paterno's range but, for a job as stressful and time-consuming as LeBeau's, it would be an advanced age.

LeBeau was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer, perhaps the last personal achievement he wanted to accomplish. He's already won multiple Super Bowls as a coach and got into the hall as a player.

If LeBeau considered retiring after the Steelers won the Super Bowl during the 2005 and 2008 seasons, he never dropped any hints. His players plead with him annually to return.

"I don't give it a thought. I didn't give it a thought in '05, and I didn't give it a thought in '08," LeBeau said of his status. "Here we are in the playoffs again. Every game is different, every year is different. So I think in this business, if you look beyond what's immediately in front of you, you're wasting time."

Since LeBeau returned to the Steelers in 2004 for his second tour as their defensive coordinator, they have allowed the fewest yards and points in the league.


PUNT, PASS AND KICK: Judging by the 40 national finalists for the NFL's Punt, Pass and Kick competition, the Denver Broncos are a powerhouse.

Or at least they have the most promising youngsters in the event.

Denver placed six boys and girls in the finals that will be held in Atlanta on Saturday night, ranging from 6 to 15 in five age categories.

Green Bay is next with four, then Dallas with three. San Diego, Kansas City, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland, Arizona and Chicago all have two.

Without any representatives are both New York teams, New Orleans, San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Miami, Buffalo, Cincinnati and Houston.

All participants Saturday at the Georgia Dome will launch one punt, one pass and one kick, with scores based on distance and accuracy (in feet).

NFL Punt, Pass and Kick, which began in 1961, is the nation's largest grass-roots sports skills competition. Hall of Fame quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Dan Marino competed as youngsters.


AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner and Sports Writers Alan Robinson in Pittsburgh, Chris Jenkins in Green Bay, and Tim Booth in Seattle contributed to this story.