Despite finishing the 2009 season with the NFL's top-ranked pass defense, the Jets have made a multitude of changes in their secondary this offseason and more are on the way. The Green & White traded for CB Antonio Cromartie, sent S Kerry Rhodes to Arizona and released veteran corners Lito Sheppard and Donald Strickland.
"Our job is to take the pieces and bring them all back together," said defensive backs coach Dennis Thurman in a recent interview with newyorkjets.com. "That will be our challenge in our room, to get those guys on the same page again, playing and communicating the way they're capable of," said Jets defensive backs coach Dennis Thurman in a recent interview with newyorkjets.com. "If we can do that and make a few more plays on the ball, I think we'll be very successful."
After the flurry of backfield moves became finalized, we sat down with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and Thurman to get their thoughts on the latest comings and goings. Those on-camera interviews will be featured on the site, but we also wanted to cover them here in two parts.
Part I: Antonio Cromartie
After Lito Sheppard was released, the Jets quietly flew in and grabbed Cromartie from the San Diego Chargers in exchange for a conditional 2011 draft choice. Just 25, the 6'2", 203-pounder is renowned for his rare athleticism.
"The guys that work with him before say there likely won't be a better athlete on the team," said Pettine. "He claims he can throw a football 80 yards, he can jump over and play wide receiver — he did that at Florida State and would routinely beat the guys that were still on the defensive side.
"He has amazing athletic ability. It's rare to see a corner with that type of height that can still bend and cover the way he does. It's stuff he's certainly demonstrated on film and we're looking forward to utilizing his skill."
The Tallahassee, Fla., native played just two seasons at Florida State as he tore his ACL in a voluntary workout while preparing for his junior campaign. Surgery and rehab followed, but Cromartie decided to enter the 2006 draft after finding out that his mom, Cassandra, had breast cancer and deciding it was best for his family to depart for the NFL.
Cromartie's Florida State pro day was labeled "legendary" by Pettine, and Thurman called it "the best individual workout" he'd ever seen from a defensive back.
"Rex and I both walked away and we knew we weren't going to draft him to Baltimore, but maybe one day we'll get a chance to coach this guy," said Thurman, a Ravens assistant coach from 2002-07. "Lo and behold, the guy's walking into the building and he's a very welcome addition. Playing alongside Darrelle Revis, we feel like now we have maybe the best tandem in pro football."
On paper, Cromartie and the Jets are a perfect match. He didn't like playing zone and "off" coverage in San Diego and now he'll come to a team that will ask him to play press man.
"We believe for what we do, playing more man-to-man than zone, he can go back and duplicate if not surpass what he did in '07," said Thurman of Cromartie's Pro Bowl campaign. "Our intentions are for him to play to that standard. He did it once. We believe he can do it again being in the right system, the right situation and the right defensive mentality. We believe this kid can come back and be an outstanding corner for us."
Critics will point to Cromartie's five interceptions and 19 pass breakups the past two seasons combined compared to '07 when he hauled in 10 interceptions and collected 18 PBUs. But if you make a fair analysis of the past two seasons, you can point to a change of coverage and perhaps more respect from opposition quarterbacks after AC went off.
"Early in his career when he's getting picked on by quarterbacks, that's when you end up getting a lot of production — whether it's PBUs or interceptions," Pettine said. "The better corners, as their years go on, they get identified as kind of shutdown guys and you'll see less activity that way. That might be able to explain part of it."
But Cromartie's going to see plenty of activity as a Jet. He's the No. 2 corner because his new partner — Revis — is widely considered the best in football. Quarterbacks will ask for empathy because they're going to have trouble scanning the field against a blitz-happy defense and two ball-hungry corners licking their chops.
"The two of those guys will make each other better. When you play alongside another great player who plays your position, a lot of times it turns into a friendly competition," said Thurman, who had 36 interceptions in his nine-year NFL career. "They're both great competitors. If one guy's not giving up completions, the other guy won't want to give up completions. If one guy's getting interceptions, the other guy is going to want to get interceptions and make plays.
"At some point, I believe it's going to turn into a wonderful competition between the two. It won't be one of those things where they're going to break the structure or go outside the defense. It will just be that 'Hey, I'm not giving up anything so you have to go somewhere else to get what you want.' "
Also, Cromartie says he wants to be more of a "professional" and the Jets will be a good home with coaches like Thurman and Pettine. You can't underestimate the value of Revis' example in this transition, either.
"I think it will be tremendous because off the field, Darrelle is such a class act as far as how professional he is, how he prepares for the game, how he studies tape and how he studies the opponent," Thurman said. "He's tremendous not just in the meeting room but also transitioning that when he leaves the building. I think that will be nothing but a positive for Antonio."
Even though Cromartie has been inconsistent in the tackling department, the Jets believe they have created an environment that he'll benefit from. Thurman once coached another Florida State product down in Baltimore who was said to be a questionable tackler and that big-time player had no problem fitting in with the Ravens.
"Deion was towards the end of his career and they told us, 'Deion won't tackle and Deion's not physical,' " Thurman said of the legendary Deion Sanders, who finished his career with a two-year stint in B-More. "Well, when Deion got to Baltimore, the message was very clear — you play the way this defense is designed to play or you don't play. We don't really care who you are. And Deion, for us, became a very good tackler, threw his body around and did some things.
"It's a mentality that's in the room, that if you're going to be a part of this and it's going to be something special, you don't want to be the guy who's going to be singled out and is looked upon as the weak link and as a guy who won't do something within the defense that is required of you, because you will get singled out pretty quickly. The peer pressure in the room is enormous, so we don't worry about that."