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Will Cromartie addition be playoff payoff?

Antonio Cromartie of the Jets tackles Patriots' Julian

Antonio Cromartie of the Jets tackles Patriots' Julian Edelman at The New Meadowlands Stadium. (Sept. 19, 2010) Credit: David Pokress

There was a shocker when the Jets' defense lined up to start last year's AFC title game. Starting cornerback Lito Sheppard was replaced by backup Dwight Lowery because the coaching staff was worried that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning would target Sheppard all game. It worked for almost a half before Manning eventually had his way with the Jets' secondary in a 30-17 victory.

But when the Jets line up against Manning in a first-round playoff game tomorrow night, the Colts' quarterback will face a more difficult choice between All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis on one side and former Pro Bowl corner Antonio Cromartie on the other. Veteran Drew Coleman can play nickel defensive back, where he has excelled this season.

Suddenly, the Jets don't seem as vulnerable. "This game coming up is one of the reasons we went and got Antonio," defensive backs coach Dennis Thurman said of Cromartie, whom the Jets obtained in a trade with the Chargers. "We felt like we needed to improve our ability to play outside on the corner. We believe he'll play well Saturday night."

As Cromartie noted, this will be his fifth season to make the playoffs and the fifth time he's faced Manning, including regular-season games. He intercepted Manning three times in a regular-season game in 2007 and once more in the playoffs that season. "For me, the experience has been good," Cromartie said. "I know their offense pretty well. I know what they're trying to do."

Cromartie has watched tape of the Jets' AFC title loss and has a good grasp of what went wrong as the Colts scored the final 24 points of the game.

"They got a lot of balls over their heads just before halftime and going into the second half," Cromartie said. "That's one of the things we want to eliminate in the secondary. Make sure we don't give up any deep balls. Guys weren't playing with their eyes. Guys were guessing, and those balls were going over their heads. You've got to be physical at the point of attack and make sure you stay on top of the receiver."

Having Cromartie was a blessing for the Jets early this season when Revis was rounding into shape after a holdout that lasted all the way through training camp. At that point, Cromartie was taking each opponent's best receiver, and that continued when Revis injured a hamstring.

As Revis' health has improved, that has changed, with Revis generally shadowing the top receiver. But the Colts have two outstanding wideouts in Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon. Cromartie said of Garcon, "He's a great vertical-threat guy, a guy that can get in and out of his breaks real well and a guy who can track the deep ball. Knowing they're going to make some plays down the field, we've got to bounce back from them."

Cromartie has had his ups and downs this season. He struggled against Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace, Chicago's Johnny Knox and Miami's Brandon Marshall but also shut down Marshall in the rematch, held Randy Moss (then with New England) without a catch in the half he covered him and locked up Cincinnati's Chad Ochocinco.

"Cro has given us some opportunities to play one-on-one and do things inside [with the pass rush] that we want to do," Thurman said. "We're very happy with the job he's done."

Cromartie has been a positive addition to the locker room. "A lot of people don't realize how hard he studies in the film room,'' Coleman said. "Every time I see him, he has his iPad and he's watching film. He stops me and says, 'Look at this, Drew. Watch this.' He gives me some kind of clues or hints. He's definitely an animal in the classroom. Playing on the opposite side of Revis, he takes it as a challenge, and he wants to show how good he is. That's making our secondary even better. We love having him here."

The Jets just hope Manning won't love the change.

New York Sports