NEW YORK — Muhammad Wilkerson’s playmaking abilities have been questioned. So has his health.
The one thing the New York Jets defensive end’s teammates insist has never been an issue is Wilkerson’s heart.
After injuries and inconsistency rendered him a non-factor for the first few games, Wilkerson has been a force lately for the Jets’ defense.
“I’m just doing my job,” Wilkerson said after New York’s 34-21 victory over Buffalo on Thursday night . “I try to do my job each and every day to the best I can, get treatment, stay in the training room, rehab and when it comes time to play, I just do my job the best that I can.”
Wilkerson’s season got off to a slow start, going without a sack until last Sunday against Atlanta — the Jets’ eighth game of the year. He followed that up four days later with another against the Bills.
That’s despite not having practiced at all the past few weeks while trying to heal from shoulder and foot injuries.
“I think he is playing a little better in spite of feeling like crap, but I think he’s getting better,” coach Todd Bowles said during a conference call Friday. “I think it’s less and less each week, and that’s allowing him to go out.
“I think he just blocks it out and goes out and plays.”
Two years ago, Wilkerson was considered one of the NFL’s rising defensive stars while being selected for his first Pro Bowl. He couldn’t play in the all-star game, though, because of a broken right fibula.
The Jets showed their faith in Wilkerson that offseason, giving him a five-year deal worth $86 million with $53 million guaranteed and a $15 million signing bonus. He made it back from the injury in time to play in the season opener last year. But it was clear something was wrong.
Wilkerson lacked the playmaking explosiveness that he showed in his first few seasons. He also missed a team meeting, which had many fans and media questioning his work ethic and standing as a team leader. The sluggish start this season just amplified those concerns.
But not behind the Jets’ closed doors in the locker room.
“He’s a hell of a leader,” said linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who had two sacks against Buffalo. “He may not talk to the media a lot, he may not be outspoken, but in terms of being a leader, he is definitely one of the leaders of this defense and this team.”
Wilkerson spoke during training camp about wanting to step up more as someone his teammates could look up to for leadership, and it’s carried into the regular season.
After the Jets’ 31-28 loss at Miami on Oct. 22, Wilkerson urged his teammates to look at themselves in the mirror after blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead.
“Mo, after the last game, brought us all up,” Jenkins said, “and he said, ‘This isn’t who we are going to be, this isn’t us. We have to keep fighting. We have to stop messing around. And, we have to finish people.”
New York again wasted a fourth-quarter lead on Sunday while falling to the Falcons 25-20 .
During the defensive meeting on Wednesday night, Wilkerson challenged the Jets to hold LeSean McCoy and the Bills to under 60 yards rushing. When a teammate suggested 80 should be the magic number, they came to a compromise and settled on 70.
The Bills finished with just 63 yards on the ground, with McCoy gaining only 25 on 12 carries.
“I told (Wilkerson), ‘He don’t have to get anything. I don’t know why we have to give him 70, that’s really generous,'” linebacker Darron Lee said of McCoy. “And (Wilkerson) was just like, ‘Let’s go out and do it.’
“And we did it.”
Wilkerson was a major reason. He had perhaps his most complete game of the season with three tackles, a sack, two quarterback pressures and a pass defensed.
One reporter jokingly asked Wilkerson if he might lobby to continue to not practice during the week of games. He was questionable heading into Thursday night, just as he had been listed the past few weeks. He still played in those, but the short work week left some doubt as to whether Wilkerson would be out there for the Jets against the Bills.
“Honestly, I wasn’t too sure how I was going to be,” Wilkerson said. “But, it comes down to this: I’m the type of player that I want to be out there with my guys. I’m pretty sure everybody on this team and in this locker room knows that. So, I’m going to do my best to prepare and get ready for the game.”
NOTES: Bowles had no update on the status of WR/KR Jeremy Kerley, who injured a foot and was due for further tests Friday. The Jets are also awaiting word from the NFL on a potential suspension for Kerley for violating league rules, which Kerley declined to comment on earlier in the week. … LB Bruce Carter left the game with a hamstring injury, but Bowles was still unsure of the severity.