FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Three days before the biggest game of the season, the New York Jets suffered a major setback that will affect them long past Monday night's showdown against the New England Patriots.
Safety Jim Leonhard, the glue to the secondary and their top punt returner, fractured his right tibia Friday in a freak collision in practice, the Jets confirmed.
The 5-foot-8, 188-pound Leonhard collided with wide receiver Patrick Turner and was carted off the field, leaving teammates and coaches shaken. That portion of practice was closed to the media.
Leonhard was scheduled for surgery Friday night at Morristown Memorial Hospital. There was no damage to the fibula, knee or ankle, and the fracture didn't break the skin, according to the Jets. Leonhard is expected to miss the remainder of the season, although the Jets wouldn't confirm that, saying they wanted to wait until after surgery before commenting on his status.
"It doesn't look good," one team source said.
Minutes after practice, a somber Rex Ryan began his news conference by saying, "We've got some terrible news." Ryan, who considers the heady Leonhard the quarterback of the defense, called it "a huge blow to us." Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said "we were all crushed" when the injury occurred.
The injury couldn't have happened at a worse time, with the pass-happy Patriots looming. Leonhard is the stabilizing force in a secondary that, at times, has suffered communication breakdowns. Without Leonhard directing traffic, the Jets could have serious issues with Tom Brady and the Patriots' balanced and complex passing attack.
Leonhard's absence means the starting safety tandem will be Eric Smith and Brodney Pool, both of whom have been sharing the free-safety spot. Leonhard is third on the team in tackles (66 total), along with one interception and one fumble recovery.
He's also the Jets' top punt returner. That job will fall to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who will be back after missing two games with a partially torn groin. Typically, they use two returners. Rookie Kyle Wilson has been a disappointment, according to special-teams coach Mike Westhoff, who said he will use cornerback Antonio Cromartie or wide receiver Santonio Holmes as the other returner.
The Jets will miss Leonhard's intangibles. He's the classic overachiever, a big-hitting tough guy who endeared himself to Ryan with the Baltimore Ravens. When Ryan left to coach the Jets in 2009, one of the first free agents he contacted was Leonhard. On the field, he's an extension of Ryan.
"Unfortunately, this is a big injury to us," Ryan said. "He's an excellent football player, a great communicator, everything else. ... Emotionally, it was a letdown. I thought we were having our best practice of the year until that point. Obviously, it was a huge blow to our team, but this a tough group and we've carried ourselves this far because of our mental toughness."
Ryan tried to muster some of his famous bravado, adding, "We're going to find a way to get it done, and that's what I'm banking on. Do I think we'll win the game? Absolutely."
After practice, Ryan gathered the team to announce the injury. He tried to brighten the mood by reminding the players of all the injuries they've been able to overcome, going down the list. But the more he talked, the more Ryan sounded like he was trying to convince himself things would be OK, according to one player.
"He's one of the best safeties in football," said defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, who also played with Leonhard in Baltimore. "He is, by far, one of the most talented players. I would stop to say he's probably the best player on this team with the amount of stuff he can do. He lines up everybody, he tackles and he plays like his hair is on fire."
Smith, too, is an intelligent player, and he will inherit many of Leonhard's duties as the quarterback of the secondary.
Because of the Patriots' two pass-catching tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, this was going to be a challenging game for the Jets' safeties -- and that was before the injury. Backup James Ihedigbo could be thrust into a prominent role. The expected return of Dwight Lowery from a concussion will help the depth.
"I think we kind of have to change our focus back [in the secondary] a little bit, and be a little bit more defined in some of the things that we do," Pettine said.
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.