SAN DIEGO (AP) -Until last Sunday, Antonio Cromartie was best known for whiffing on the throw that went for Brett Favre's record-tying 420th touchdown pass. Greg Jennings finished off the 57-yard play to put the Green Bay Packers ahead of the San Diego Chargers for good.
Five weeks later, Cromartie single-handedly outscored the Houston Texans. He recorded his first NFL touchdown by jumping on a botched punt snap. His second TD came a little later on a sensational 70-yard interception return. Rangy and fast, the nickel back got another pickoff just five plays later.
It would have been hard to come up with a better breakout game.
Teammates have raved about Cromartie's physical skills and football instincts. Still a raw talent because he played only half a college career and tore up one knee, his potential was off the charts.
Of course, doing it on the practice field is one thing. Doing it on Sundays is quite another.
``That was a game that he needed to have,'' said cornerback Drayton Florence, whose job Cromartie is expected to eventually take. ``He's been putting in so much hard work. For him to go out and get two defensive touchdowns, some guys go their whole career without scoring two defensive touchdowns.''
Getting burned at Green Bay certainly motivated Cromartie, who has three interceptions in two games and shares the team lead with safety Marlon McCree.
``I told myself I wasn't going to let no one else catch a ball for a touchdown over me,'' said Cromartie, who's 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds. ``My biggest thing was to finish plays. I think in the Green Bay game I didn't finish the play like I wanted to. That was hanging over me for a long time. And now I think it's over with. Now it's time to keep going.''
The Chargers took Cromartie with the 19th pick overall in the 2006 draft even though he missed the 2005 season at Florida State after tearing up his left knee in a summer voluntary workout.
General manager A.J. Smith didn't think it was a gamble at all after the team's medical staff cleared Cromartie. ``We were comfortable, so we proceeded,'' Smith said.
Smith had another simple answer for anyone who doubted Cromartie's experience.
``He played enough for us,'' the GM said.
Cromartie left school a year early to help provide for his mother, Cassandra, who was battling breast cancer. She's since beaten the disease.
Cromartie said he wasn't 100 percent last season. ``I was healthy to the point that I could play,'' he said. ``Now I'm 100 percent. I don't think of that at all.''
While his resume was somewhat lacking, his confidence wasn't.
``There was no big adjustment,'' he said. ``It was just getting in and trying to get reps and getting back comfortable in playing the position again.''
Coach Norv Turner cites Cromartie as an example of the young players who've improved as the Chargers (4-3) have righted their early-season wrongs.
``He's kind of learning how to play the position on the run,'' Turner said. ``He's played a lot of football here the last few years, but it was as a nickel back and all that. He had as good a game as you can playing at corner and obviously gave us a big lift, a big boost. Anytime you can score on defense, anytime you can make the plays he did, those are game-changing plays.''
Although he started only one game in college, Cromartie was compared with former Seminole Deion Sanders. Quarterback Philip Rivers knows what it's like to have an interception returned for a touchdown. He couldn't help but bring up Sanders' name while discussing Cromartie.
``When I think of a corner that when he got it, he scored, that's what I meant,'' Rivers said.
Cromartie ``is one of those that when he gets the ball, he may score one,'' Rivers added. ``It's not going to be an interception and a tackle. When he gets it, it's like, hold onto your hat. You see why he was thought of so highly in the draft, just because how dangerous he is and what he can do with them after he gets them.''
Cromartie's first TD was easy. Bryan Pittman's snap went over punter Matt Turk's head and rolled into the end zone. When Turk stumbled trying to recover the ball, Cromartie jumped on it.
His second was spectacular. He leaped to pick off Schaub, almost went down but recovered, worked his way across the field and finished off his TD run down the left sideline.
``As soon as he turned the corner, everybody knew he was going to score,'' Florence said.
``He's got the natural athletic ability,'' Florence said. ``He's probably got more ability than Deion had, more speed maybe. He's a lot taller, he's a lot more physical. I just wish the best for him. The more he continues to develop, the better we become as a team.''
Florence will be eligible for free agency after this season and it's doubtful he'll remain with the Chargers. That would open a full-time job for Cromartie.
Both Florence and safety Clinton Hart commended Cromartie for his work ethic. Hart alluded to the fact Cromartie is less chatty in practice - unless it's football-related - and concentrates more.
Even if getting burned at Green Bay spurred him to play better, ``he still would have realized his time is going to come,'' Hart said. ``That's the reality of it all, and he has to be ready. He's really been focused in, zoned in. He knows it's time for him to step up and start playing and contributing. And that's all about the maturity of the game. He's not a rookie anymore.''
Smith knows it was just one game. ``Will he have another one? I hope so. Will he have a great career? I hope so,'' the GM said.

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