CLEVELAND - For Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the nightmare that was the 2011 season is behind him. No longer is he a square peg being pounded into a round hole.
The 6-2, 182-pound gazelle is back on the outside where he belongs, where he should have been all along.
"It's a good feeling to get your hands on two balls and then go out there on the last drive and get a stop," the Eagles cornerback said Sunday after picking off two passes and helping his team overcome five turnovers in a 17-16 win over the Browns.
Rodgers-Cromartie didn't get his hands on many balls last year.
Because of the presence of Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha, Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo moved him inside to the slot, which was like moving Ryan Howard to leadoff.
It was a marriage made in hell. His skills were ill-suited to play inside. Now, with Samuel gone, Rodgers-Cromartie is back outside and the Eagles' defense is the better for it.
"We all know he's a great athlete," Castillo said Sunday. "And he knows he's a great athlete. What he did today, that's what he expects to do.
"He wants to be known as a shutdown corner. That's his goal; to be the best. And he started it the way he's supposed to start it."
DRC very nearly gave up a touchdown on the Browns' first possession Sunday when wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi got behind him on the Browns' fourth offensive play. But rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden squandered the golden opportunity with an overthrow. DRC wouldn't give him any other free chances.
The Eagles intercepted Weeden four times - two by Rodgers-Cromartie and two by safety Kurt Coleman, including a game-clincher by Coleman with 1:05 left.
"I love it when the game is in the defense's hands," middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "When it's on us. There's no more special feeling than being out there and all of your teammates counting on you.
"It's special to close it out on defense. Then you watch the offense go back out there and kneel with the ball. I love that formation."
Were it not for the play of Ryans and Rodgers-Cromartie and the rest of the defense Sunday, the Eagles would be 0-1 right now rather than 1-0. They would be scrambling to recover from a crushing loss to a team they had no business losing to, rather than wiping their brows after a close call and moving on to a tough Week 2 meeting with the Baltimore Ravens.
"Nobody panicked," Castillo said. "At the end, all of the guys came together and said, 'We're going to take care of this.' It's awesome. It's just a continuation of last year."
While the offense stumbled, and turned the ball over five times, including four interceptions by quarterback Michael Vick, Castillo's defense dominated the Browns' young offense.
It held them to 210 net yards and 12 first downs. Allowed them to convert just two of 13 third-down opportunities. Held Weeden to 12 completions in 35 attempts and an itsy-bitsy 5.1 passer rating. Held rookie running back Trent Richardson to 2.1 yards per carry. Didn't allow an offensive touchdown.
"We're a team," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "There are going to be some games where the defense isn't playing well. Today, we wanted to give [the offense] momentum, something to build off of."
Rodgers-Cromartie said the Eagles' preseason meeting against Weeden and the Browns helped him Sunday.
"One thing I noticed about him [last month] is he's going to get the ball out fast," DRC said. "He isn't really going to take a set. He's going to get it out of his hand. Knowing that, you've got to get out fast and locate the ball.
"Especially with [wide receiver Travis] Benjamin, he's a speed guy. When he comes in the game, you tend only get two routes. It feels good to get my hand on the ball again."
Rodgers-Cromartie's first interception came on a deep ball to Benjamin in the second quarter. DRC had excellent inside position and picked the pass off.
Early in the third quarter, he picked off another pass intended for Benjamin.
Rodgers-Cromartie and the Eagles' other Pro Bowl corner, Nnamdi Asomugha, shut down the outside on the Browns, holding Weeden to 3.4 yards per attempt.
"They got a quick slant early [a 24-yarder to Massaquoi on the Browns' second play from scrimmage]," Asomugha said. "I was playing off. Once we got away from that [and played primarily press coverage], we got into a groove. It felt good.
"I can't really tell you there were too many mistakes. Our coverage was good. Our communication was good. We were making plays on the ball.
"It was good."
Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie aren't going to get too carried away.
They realize that was a rookie quarterback they were going up against Sunday, even if his birth certificate says he's 28.
They'll face a considerably stiffer test this weekend when they face the Ravens' Joe Flacco.
"We talk about being able to create turnovers, and we were able to do that," Castillo said.
They also were able to shut down the Browns' ground game. While they gave up 99 rushing yards, 35 of them came on a second-quarter reverse to Benjamin and another 25 came on an end-of-the-half scramble by Weeden. They held Richardson to 39 yards on 19 carries.
Ryans, the Eagles' heralded offseason acquisition who had not played particularly well in the preseason, spearheaded the Eagles' run defense Sunday and had a team-high five tackles.
"We did a good job [against the run]," he said. "They got out on us with that reverse. But otherwise, it was a solid effort. You game plan every week to stop the run. We knew they wanted to get Trent going early. Everybody was just getting to the ball. There weren't any big holes or anything."
Eagles coach Andy Reid had indicated on Friday that he was going to use all six of his linebackers, which seemed to be a reflection on Ryans, who was brought in to be a three-down middle linebacker. But Ryans seldom left the field Sunday.
"They're a good run team," Reid said. "They've got a heckuva running back. I thought Juan dialed it up right and our guys got right up in there and played well at the line of scrimmage. The d-line and the linebackers, I thought they just controlled things the right way up there and made it tough for them to run."
"DeMeco is a football player," Castillo said. "All of the OTAs really helped us. It gave us an opportunity to work on fundamentals.
"But it takes time. We had some time to work with these guys and it's paying off."
Contact Paul Domowitch at firstname.lastname@example.org