Eagles' Rodgers-Cromartie has chance to reap rewards of his ability

Posted: July 30, 2012

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The pass intended for DeSean Jackson sailed through the summer air long enough for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to display what he does best. Jackson is one of the NFL's best deep threats, and enough cornerbacks have been embarrassed by him during the last four seasons.

Rodgers-Cromartie didn't want that to happen to him Saturday.

One of Rodgers-Cromartie's best attributes is his closing speed. Fellow cornerback Nmandi Asomugha called it "second to none." Before and after plays, he reverts to a slow, sluggish stride - what he dubs the "old-man gimp." But when the ball is in the air, Rodgers-Cromartie can catch up to wide receivers who think they have a few steps on him.

"Nine times out of 10, the quarterback sees the receiver running like that, he tends to float it and let him get under it," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "That gives me the opportunity to make up on it."

So with Jackson appearing to have made Rodgers-Cromartie the latest victim reading "Jackson" and "10" from behind, Rodgers-Cromartie knew he still had time. Mike Kafka underthrew the deep pass, Rodgers-Cromartie filled the distance between him and Jackson, and leaped into the air to secure an interception.

It was the type of play the Eagles hope they see from Rodgers-Cromartie this season, a crucial year in the career of the 26-year-old former Pro Bowler.

When the Eagles acquired Rodgers-Cromartie from the Arizona Cardinals in a package for Kevin Kolb last summer, it appeared the Eagles added a young, lanky ball hawk who could both pressure receivers and also accumulate interceptions. Rodgers-Cromartie totaled 13 interceptions in his first three seasons. He finished with zero in 2011.

The Eagles signed Asomugha in a move that gave them three Pro Bowl cornerbacks - Asante Samuel was the other - but the pieces didn't fit. Specifically, the 6-foot-2, 182-pound Rodgers-Cromartie struggled playing slot cornerback, where he was forced to cover shiftier wide receivers and react to passes delivered faster than when playing on the outside.

Samuel was traded during the offseason, allowing Rodgers-Cromartie to return to his preferred outside cornerback spot. The move came at an opportune time, too, because Rodgers-Cromartie is in the final year of his contract and could be on the verge of a breakout season.

"The opportunities will be there," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "Especially with Trent Cole and Jason Babin coming off that edge, they have to throw the ball a lot faster. Then you got Nmandi on the other side, and he got a lot of respect from a lot of quarterbacks."

Opposing quarterbacks will look at one side of the field and see Asomougha and the other half of the field and see Rodgers-Cromartie. Both enjoy playing press coverage, although Asomougha has a reputation for blanketing wide receivers and Rodgers-Cromartie sometimes lets receivers have a step on him before showing that closing speed.

"For the most part," Rodgers-Cromartie said, "I think [the quarterback is] going to tend to look over on my side a lot more."

Rodgers-Cromartie attributed this to the reputation Asomougha has earned in the NFL, but it's something that Rodgers-Cromartie welcomes. More passes in his direction would provide more chances to tally interceptions and play the way he did when he was at his optimum in Arizona.

"I think [my approach] is a little bit more cerebral, and [Rodgers-Cromartie's] might be a little bit more pure athleticism," Asomugha said. "Either way, I think we have a chance to be really great out there because we both have two things that we harp in on."

Both cornerbacks have similar size, but their different playing styles complement each other well enough that Asomugha briefly considered whether they could become the top tandem in the NFL. He added the disclaimer that there was similar discussion last season when Samuel was involved, and the learning curve took longer than anticipated.

The match between Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie appears a better fit, and their ranking among the NFL's elite is an aspiration. There remains potential for Rodgers-Cromartie, in part because the athleticism Asomugha referenced is a rare attribute.

While waiting for a shuttle to the players' dorms Saturday, Rodgers-Cromartie started playing basketball on a parking lot court. At one point, standing still below the basket and wearing sandals, he leaped to dunk the ball, all the while aware of wasps flying around the basket. Instead, he gently laid the ball into the basket. It was a flash of both athleticism and foresight.

Preventing a sting was a shrewd move for Rodgers-Cromartie, because he could be due for a lucrative contract next offseason. And he can get it the same way he intercepted the pass to Jackson: making up for lost time and closing in on the prize.

Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com and follow on Twitter @ZBerm.


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