Of all of the head-scratching aspects of the New York Jets' unpredictable season, the steep decline of cornerback Antonio Cromartie has been the most stunning.
In 2012, Cromartie was one of the few bright spots on the team, winning the team's MVP award. Fast-forward 10 months, and Cromartie is suddenly among the worst in the league at this position.
While he is a year older and a drop-off from playing at such a high level was inevitable, no one could have imagined that the Jets' top cornerback would transform into one of the biggest liabilities on the team.
Cromartie's struggles earlier in the season could have been traced to a hip injury that sidelined him for a portion of training camp. Now that the season is nearly three months old and Cromartie is no longer on the injury report, his struggles have officially become more a sign of permanent decline than a mere aberration.
How Far Has Cromartie Fallen?
Cromartie is not just having an "off" year—he has suddenly become one of the worst players in the league at his position less than a year after being considered one of the league's best.
|Antonio Cromartie: 2012 vs. 2013|
|Targets||Receptions Against||Yards||Passes Defended||Opp. QB Rating||PFF Rank|
|2013 (through 10 games)||59||28||575||2||103.4||99|
Not only is Cromartie allowing more plays against him and making fewer game-changing plays in return, the plays he is giving up are usually for big yardage.
The Jets knew that they would see at least some decline in production in the secondary after parting ways with Darrelle Revis, but there is no way they should be fielding one of the weakest defensive backfields in the sport with all they have invested in the cornerback position.
Why, then, is Cromartie having such a poor season?
Simply put, his declining physical gifts can no longer mask his technical flaws.
Antonio Cromartie has built a reputation as one of the fastest players in the game, but even the most athletic freaks of nature are winless against Father Time. When watching Cromartie, it is abundantly clear that he does not have the elite recovery speed that allowed him to get away with his technical flaws.
On this play, Cromartie is playing close to the line of scrimmage against the fastest receiver on the field, Marquise Goodwin.
Cromartie gives Goodwin a free release at the line of scrimmage as opposed to disrupting his route, allowing Goodwin to build up his speed.
Cromartie is actually playing sound technique at this point. He is running with Goodwin while looking back for the ball, anticipating Goodwin's "go" route the entire way.
However, because Goodwin was able to get to his top speed thanks to a free release given by Cromartie, Goodwin gets a step on him just before the ball arrives.
This is the point where Cromartie is usually able to reach another gear and recover in time to make a play on the ball. Here, Cromartie is simply unable to do so, and Goodwin reels in the long touchdown.
Cromartie is not necessarily playing with horrendous technique. While he did not utilize a full-on press-man technique, he did just about everything else correctly: He looked for the ball while keeping an eye on his receiver.
The issue is not the style of coverage he is playing with—his style of coverage simply does not marry with his depleted physical skills.
The problem on this play was that he was playing as if he had his "old" speed that has allowed him to spend so much time looking for the ball instead of pressing or running with the receiver. Cromartie should have either backed off at the line of scrimmage to give him a head start or taken his chances of stoning Goodwin at the line of scrimmage.
However, even when Cromartie plays in deep coverage, his lack of speed and agility has led to big plays against the Jets.
Here, he is burned by Marvin Jones because he labored to flip his hips and accelerate with the receiver:
As a result, it is clear that Cromartie is having a difficult time adjusting to his diminished physical traits.
Lack of Physicality
Because he lost his elite speed, Cromartie is starting to change the way he plays up at the line of scrimmage as well.
Cromartie had his success in 2012 because he was able to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage before they had a chance to test his speed. Now, because Cromartie is having a tough time turning and running to recover from his mistakes, he is clearly more timid when attempting to disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage with the physical, bump-and-run style the Jets prefer from their corners.
Here, Cromartie is lined up against Antonio Brown. Again, he is lined up close to the line of scrimmage as if he were going to press, but he backs off when the ball is snapped.
Instead of controlling the receiver, Cromartie is left in a reactionary position. Notice how off-balance he is as Brown's agility gets the best of the lankier Cromartie.
Cromartie turns to catch up with Brown, but he is unable to make a 180-degree turn to do so—a sign of tightening hips.
As a result, Cromartie allows immediate separation from Brown, who flies right past him to eventually draw a costly pass interference penalty deep down the field.
While it is impossible to tell for sure why Cromartie is being so timid at the line of scrimmage, it is only logical to assume that because he is no longer the same player from a physical standpoint, he is reverting to the old, passive techniques that got him run out of San Diego.
This style of play may be more comfortable for him on the field, but it led to poor results on the field.
There is no way to tell whether Cromartie will ever be the same player; after all, he could be hiding an injury that will be healed by next season. On the other hand, he could have diminished skills and physical traits that he will never get back.
Either way, the Jets need Antonio Cromartie to play much better than he has if they are going to field a defense that Rex Ryan can be happy with.
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