FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Antonio Cromartie zipped past Johnathan Joseph, reached out and hauled in a long pass from Mark Sanchez.
The New York Jets' cornerback got his feet down for what he hoped was his first NFL catch as a wide receiver. But the ball had sailed a bit and led him out of bounds.
No catch, but Cromartie was still able to talk some trash to the Houston Texans cornerback.
"I told him, 'I play corner, too, and I just ran right by you,'" Cromartie said, laughing.
Joseph shot right back at Cromartie: "So what? You were out of bounds, so the catch doesn't count anyway."
Cromartie has played a few snaps at wide receiver this season, but he nearly had as many catches as he allowed to Texans star Andre Johnson on Monday night: just one, for 15 yards.
When Darrelle Revis when down for the season with a knee injury a few weeks ago, Cromartie said he was now the best cornerback in the NFL. Well, he has lived up to his bold declaration, taking Revis' place in shutting down the likes of Houston's Andre Johnson, San Francisco's Michael Crabtree and Miami's Brian Hartline.
"When he made the statement he did, it's because he believes it and, quite honestly, he has the kind of athletic ability where he could be the best cornerback in the league," coach Rex Ryan said. "I think he's definitely stepped up. I see it in the meeting rooms. He's even taking some of that leadership deal over with the (secondary)."
It was Cromartie's idea Monday night that as each of the Jets' starting defensive players were introduced individually, that all four members of the secondary — him, Kyle Wilson, LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell — run out together, side by side.
In Week 3, Hartline was held to one catch for 41 yards with Cromartie mostly defending him. Cromartie was targeted three times the following week, holding Crabtree without a catch while he was on him. Johnson was expected to serve as Cromartie's biggest test, and the Jets cornerback frustrated him the way Revis has in past matchups.
"I think he realized that once Darrelle went down, he made the statement ... it's put up or shut up time," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. "He's responded really well, and we're thrilled with that."
Ryan has often praised Cromartie's athletic ability, which is why he has put him on special teams to return kicks and on offense to help with the team's injury-riddled wide receivers.
"We've always said that he's got more (pure) ability than probably anybody at that position," Ryan said. "Him and Deion (Sanders)."
That's impressive company, particularly when many consider Sanders to have been the most dynamic and athletic cornerback to have played the game.
While he was a cornerback at Florida State, Cromartie also worked out at wide receiver during his pro day before the 2006 draft. And, Ryan thought he looked like a first-round talent at that position, although San Diego drafted him 19th overall an immediately placed him in the Chargers' secondary.
"I had some thoughts (about playing receiver), which is why I did some routes on my pro day," Cromartie said. "But, honestly, I wanted to be a corner, and that's what I'm here for."
Cromartie has two interceptions this season, including one he returned for a touchdown in the season opener against Buffalo. His nine picks in two-plus seasons with Jets ranks him third in the AFC among cornerbacks since 2010.
He'll face another huge task Sunday against Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne, who had a career-high 212 yards receiving against Green Bay last week. The Colts often move Wayne around, so Cromartie likely won't be on him the entire game — but knows he'll need to keep playing like a No. 1 cornerback when he is.
And, the Jets have no doubt he'll be prepared to do so. Cromartie has been inconsistent at times with his coverage during his time with the Jets, but he has been fantastic the last few weeks.
"It's a tribute to him," Pettine said. "It's a well-kept secret that he prepares better than I think any player I've been around. I mean, he studies the tape inside, outside, backwards. He'll embarrass the other DBs. They know that they better have looked at it pretty in-depth or else he's going to throw stuff at them that they'll have no idea about."
The Jets nearly lost Cromartie in free agency after the NFL lockout was lifted in July 2011. They were hot after Nnamdi Asomugha, considered at that time by many to be in the same class as Revis in terms of shutting down opponents. Asomugha ended up signing with Philadelphia, so New York quickly turned back to Cromartie and re-signed him to a four-year deal.
Cromartie made headlines during training camp when he said he was the Jets' second-best wide receiver behind Santonio Holmes. Ryan joked that after watching Cromartie nearly make that catch against the Texans, he might have been selling himself short.
"Man, like I said, that point is over with," said Cromartie, who spends an extra 30-40 minutes every day studying the offense in case he has to play some at wide receiver. "I'm just here to try to help out as much as possible whenever my number is called on the offensive side of the ball. My No. 1 position right now is being the best corner in the NFL."
Special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff has said Cromartie is always asking to help out on his unit, and is not afraid to use him as a kick returner in place of Joe McKnight or occasionally on the punt team.
"He's just a phenomenal athlete," Westhoff said. "I have a big sign in my office that says: 'Men play on Sundays.' He's a grown man. He fits that rule."
NOTES: A day after saying that Sanchez is the Jets' starting quarterback "this week," Ryan was surprised at how much attention that comment got. "Sanchez, I'm looking right now, he's still our starter right now," Ryan said with a smile. "Wow, that got a little air time. In all seriousness, he's our starting quarterback. But it is amazing how things take off a little bit." ... C Nick Mangold (ankle), NT Sione Po'uha (back), FB John Conner (hamstring), NT Kenrick Ellis (knee), WR Clyde Gates (shoulder) and S Eric Smith (knee) did not practice. Ellis is out 4-6 weeks with a sprained knee ligament, while Smith is out this week after being hurt in practice Wednesday.
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