Commentary

Bilal Powell lets his feet do his talking

Running back may be quietest man on Jets, but he's finding ways to get noticed

Updated: October 11, 2013, 1:33 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Third-year Jets running back Bilal Powell is not a household name. Not even close.

But heading into this season, he ranked among the unsung players who had to play well if the Jets were going to get off to a surprising start. And on Sunday in Atlanta, there he was, making the run of the game after Jets quarterback Geno Smith made the call of the game -- a daring audible out of a shotgun pass into a handoff to Powell that was either going to cement a last-minute comeback against the Falcons or doom it.

[+] EnlargeBilal Powell
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBilal Powell's efforts in Atlanta helped the Jets improve to 3-2.

There were only 34 seconds left to play. After blowing a 13-point second-half lead, the Jets trailed by one. Powell, standing by his locker at the Jets' practice facility Thursday, smiled slightly as he recalled the situation. He admitted his first thought when Smith had the guts to change the play was: What is he doing?

"It was so loud [in the Georgia Dome] I couldn't exactly hear him make the check at first," Powell said. "But then I looked at the defense and saw what Geno saw, and I thought, 'Wow. He is going to be special.' For him to make that check? In that situation? I think you can take that rookie label off him right now."

Powell's next thought, once he got the handoff? That remained uncomfortable. The Jets were staring at a game-winning, 49-yard field goal attempt if they didn't gain another yard. But they didn't dare lose any yardage, either. And Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux was running at Powell nearly untouched, threatening to blow up the play.

Until Powell juked him and gained 6 yards instead.

"He's always had that talent," Jets coach Rex Ryan said.

Then Nick Folk remained perfect on the season by booming a 43-yard field goal as time expired.

"I'm glad we had to win it this way," Ryan said repeatedly after the game. And what he meant was the Jets' all-hands-on-deck approach, the same formula they have to keep using the rest of the season, starting with their game against the winless Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. If the Jets (3-2) win this game, too, there won't be much room left on the bandwagon next week ahead of their rematch against New England.

By now, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- who already has five fumbles this season -- has no doubt noticed how Jets defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson stripped Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan of the ball to keep driving the talk that Wilkerson is heading for his first Pro Bowl.

Smith, who played his college ball just an hour and a half from Pittsburgh at West Virginia, was a perfect 4-for-4 on the last drive against Atlanta after getting the ball at the Jets' 20 with 1:54 to play. And Powell, whose job status was unclear in the offseason after the Jets obtained Chris Ivory and Mike Goodson, tightened his grip on the starting job a little more.

It wasn't the first time Powell has had to make himself noticed.

If you took a team vote, Powell would probably be chosen the most introverted man on the Jets' roster. And he admitted that's funny, considering whom he plays for. "I'm not really a big talker, to tell you the truth -- and that's not him," he said with a smile about Ryan.

But what Powell does say reveals how he's been constantly listening, learning, working and thinking about how he can excel at his job since he joined the Jets as a fourth-round pick out of Louisville in 2011.

"One of the things that really stand out for me now, looking back," said Powell, "is when Coach Ryan first brought me in, he said, 'I don't really need anything out of you but 100 percent.' That just makes it that much easier, you know? The idea that you don't have to change who you are -- just give me your best shot.

"That's what I try to do. Every day."

Having Hall of Fame-bound back LaDainian Tomlinson as a teammate, when "I wasn't really getting any reps on offense in my rookie year," helped immeasurably too, Powell said. What was Tomlinson's advice? "Protect the quarterback. Catch the ball. Be able to run inside the tackles. Be able to run outside the tackles. Just try to do anything and everything possible to situate yourself to take advantage of every opportunity that's given you, you know?

"It's just a mindset," Powell continued. "I try to learn as much of the playbook as I can. And instead of focusing on the things I'm good at, focus on my weaknesses, improve in those areas. And just take coaching. I just try to be a professional every day."

It shows.

A less astute back might've frozen in the situation Powell found himself in against Atlanta: Game on the line. No room for error. A surprise audible from your rookie quarterback. The ball in your hands and a defensive tackle in your face with the crowd howling.

But Powell's mental sharpness has always been impressive.

Ryan said, "I remember [running backs coach] Anthony Lynn telling me he came into a game -- I believe we were playing Denver -- [and] as a rookie, he had no mental mistakes. He's just one of those type of guys."

Ryan likes Powell's heart, too.

By training camp, Powell was projected as no better than the third-string back on the Jets' roster. But Goodson got arrested and suspended. Ivory got hurt. Joe McKnight got cut. And a message Ryan said he always delivers to the team came true again.

"I just mentioned to the guys again today how you can think you're on practice squad one minute and you might be starting the next," Ryan said Thursday. "[Powell] is a guy that took this to heart and was there, ready to go."

Later, by his locker, Powell did finally admit after some prodding that he was "a bit" of a hit earlier this week in the Jets' running back meetings. When he and the others sat down as a group to watch video of the Atlanta game, there he was again -- escaping Babineaux, making the most of Smith's willingness to put the game in his hands, making Folk's game-winning kick a 43-yarder instead of, say, a 55-yarder.

"It got complimented," Powell allowed. "Everybody said it was kind of a critical situation. But... "

Yes?

"As a running back, that's what I'm supposed to do," he added, his voice barely above a whisper.

Powell may indeed be the quietest man on the Jets. But he keeps proving there are a lot of ways in the NFL to get noticed.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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