Cromartie's quite a catch

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

More Chargers: Will armed Rivers be dangerous?

SAN DIEGO – It's probably fair to say that San Diego Chargers rookie cornerback Antonio Cromartie caught a lot more passes last season than any of his current teammates.

That's all Cromartie really could do a year ago, when he was recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that cost him his junior season at Florida State. Day after day, Cromartie would stand in front of a JUGS machine, catching passes and refining the only skill he could work on while he rehabbed his knee.

"Probably 300 to 400 passes a day," Cromartie said. "All different angles, whatever I could do."

The results of Cromartie's diligence have quickly become obvious to Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer. On Tuesday, a pass, which had plenty of zip on it, was barely tipped by wide receiver Kasim Osgood – the kind of deflection that defenders with even the quickest hands can let bounce off their shoulder pads.

However, Cromartie snared the ball on the move and never broke stride on his return.

"That one catch he made was remarkable [with] his ability to locate the ball and secure it. Most guys would have done this," said Schottenheimer, mimicking a juggling act.

"I look back at the athletes I have had the good fortune to be around and Dale Carter always comes to mind for me. I would say Cromartie is in that class as an athlete. He's actually bigger and stronger. Dale probably weighed 190 pounds soaking wet and this young man is probably 205 and he has shown a willingness to [come up and hit]."

The willingness to hit is nice, but catching the ball remains the priority. Particularly for a defense that was challenged to do that last year.

The Chargers possess one of the NFL's most stout front sevens. With the likes of linebackers Shawne Merriman, Luis Castillo and Donnie Edwards and defensive tackle Jamal Williams, the Chargers finished No. 1 in the league against the run last season.

Part of that was obviously fear-induced. Even in the run-heavy AFC West, opponents realized there was no place to go. But another part was that the San Diego secondary didn’t exactly inspire fear. The Chargers had only 10 interceptions, tied for the fourth-lowest total in the NFL.

Not that interceptions are necessarily the be-all, end-all of defense. The Super Bowl champion Steelers only had 15. But they also only allowed 15 touchdown passes, resulting in a 1-to-1 ratio. San Diego allowed 20 touchdown passes, a not-so-special 2-to-1 ratio.

The trick against the Chargers was to max protect against the blitzes defensive coordinator Wade Phillips likes to run and then wait for an opening against the secondary.

"In this league, nobody can cover for five or six seconds, so you see that everywhere," cornerback Quentin Jammer said.

True, but Jammer admitted there was a tendency in the secondary to cheat a bit, looking back for the ball after three or four seconds. In the process, wide receivers often snuck behind the coverage.

The prototype game for that was at home against Miami last season when Dolphins receivers Marty Booker and Chris Chambers turned simple down-and-out moves into over-the-top long plays when the coverage broke down.

Miami recorded a mild upset, starting a San Diego swoon of three losses over the final five games that knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs. For a team that featured such a stellar run defense, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates, the season was a vast disappointment.

Now comes the rebuilding of the secondary with Cromartie, who ended up a first-round pick despite the missed junior season. What might have happened if Cromartie had been able to play?

"I think I would have been a top-five pick," Cromartie said without a hint of boastfulness.

Cromartie is hardly shy about his talent. Later in last Tuesday's practice, he recognized a quick slant pass and jumped the route for his second interception of the afternoon. As he ran past the offense, he talked some good-natured smack and some of the offensive players started playfully chasing him down the field to the end zone.

Cromartie, who still has much to learn about man-to-man coverage and is still listed behind veteran Drayton Florence, beat them all to the end zone and celebrated by chucking the ball into the stands.

To Schottenheimer, it's the beginning of a promising career.

"His instincts are very good. He is very gifted athletically and he has terrific ball skills as you saw out there today," Schottenheimer said. "But the interesting thing about him is that as he becomes more comfortable with what we’re doing and there is less need for him to think his way through it and to actually react, the sky is the limit from an athletic standpoint."

More importantly, Cromartie's talents may spark the rest of the secondary to improve.

Toward the end of practice, Jammer came up with an interception of his own. Normally, that might not be cause for interest, but the 2002 first-round pick has piled up only six picks in his first four seasons, including only one INT in each of the past two years.

The bottom line was summed up by a fan standing in the crowd.

"Now do it in a game Jammer," the fan yelled.

What to Read Next