Rookie cornerback makes impact for Cardinals

Tampa, Fla. – Even though Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a rookie, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said he’s the best cornerback that will play in Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday.

He should know. Arizona’s Rodgers-Cromartie had three of his four regular-season interceptions against the Seahawks, including a pick of a Hasselbeck throw intended for Deion Branch at the end of the game in Seattle that sealed the Cardinals’ victory.

“I talked to Matt and Matt said ‘I thought I had that throw,’ ” said Arizona defensive backs coach Teryl Austin, who served in that same position in Seattle during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run. “And he (Rodgers-Cromartie) just comes out of nowhere because he can stick his foot in the ground and he can accelerate, and he just has confidence that he can make the play.”

It’s a homecoming of sorts for Rodgers-Cromartie, who grew up in Bradenton, Fla., about 20 minutes south of Tampa.

The No. 16 overall pick in April who had some NFL observers raising eyebrows because of his small-school roots at Tennessee State, Rodgers-Cromartie is paying big dividends for the Cardinals as they head into Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh.

At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, the Cardinals were sold on the wiry 22-year-old after he was timed in 4.33 seconds for the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in February. Austin said Rodgers-Cromartie has the unique ability to keep up with smaller receivers, has good recovery speed and excellent pass-catching skills.

That potent skill set allowed Rodgers-Cromartie to make game-changing plays for the Cardinals, although Austin said the team initially wanted to bring the rookie along slowly to get him acclimated.

“I think for him the easy part is playing football because he’s got such natural ability,” Austin said. “The hardest part was putting everything we put into the game plan and then taking it onto the field. So our thing was, let’s bring him along slowly, get him in nickel and dime (coverage) and let him learn.”

Things changed when injuries hit the Cardinals’ defensive backfield, forcing the quiet rookie into action.

Early on, Rodgers-Cromartie sometimes had coloring books or sketched drawings in his notebooks when he should have been watching film during the long defensive backs meetings because he didn’t expect to play much his first year.

Suddenly, he had to pay attention. Cornerback Roderick Hood said Rodgers-Cromartie was a quick study.

“The more times he got the opportunity to play, the better he got,” Hood said. “Sometime at the cornerback position you’ve got to get thrown in the fire and learn from your mistakes. And I think once he got thrown in the fire, he made his mistakes. But now he’s started to get more comfortable and he’s playing at a higher level.”

Rodgers-Cromartie was born with a non-functioning kidney that had to be removed when he was 8. Doctors questioned the risk of allowing him to play football. Rodgers-Cromartie wore a protective vest when he started playing, but eventually grew comfortable without it.

He bounced around through four high schools before finding a home his senior season at Lakeland Ranch High in his hometown of Bradenton.

He was lightly recruited because of the moving. He chose Tennessee State, where he twice earned All-American honors. He also met Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green and began attending the Green’s camps and learning the trade.

The nimble cornerback seems to be peaking at the right time. He has had two more interceptions during the postseason, and he held talented receiver Steve Smith of Carolina to two receptions for 43 yards in Arizona’s 33-13 divisional playoff victory.

He’ll most likely by matched against Pittsburgh burner Santonio Holmes on Sunday.

No problem, Rodgers-Cromartie said, because he’s been well prepared by facing Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston, Arizona’s impressive trio of receivers, daily in practice.

“They really gave me everything I need to see in a receiver. You’ve got Fitz being a physical, tall, big body and knowing how to use position,” he said. “And then you’ve got Bolden just being an all-around, run-after-the catch guy, someone you throw a short route to and he can make something out of it. Then you’ve got Steve with the speed. So when I go on Sunday I feel like I’ve seen all of them already.”

Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437