After five weeks, five inactives and a 21-day stint on the injury report, Eric Rowe got the green light on Sunday.
The 2015 second-round pick by way of Utah, who was acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a 2018 fourth-rounder in September, learned he’d make his New England Patriots debut 90 minutes before kickoff.
But there would be more waiting involved for Rowe before he’d see the field for the 1 p.m. meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The 24-year-old wasn’t a part of the plan for the better part of the first half at Gillette Stadium, despite fellow corners Cyrus Jones and Justin Coleman residing among the team’s scratches. The Patriots instead began with Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty at safety, Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan on the outside, and Patrick Chung in the nickel.
From there, Chung would step off in some 4-3 looks, but the three-safety unit – and a heavy dose of zone coverage – was predominant early on.
It was a look that proved to be vulnerable despite the team’s 10-7 lead through the first two quarters. Quarterback Andy Dalton found soft spots for a 13-of-16 passing line with 143 yards, as perennial Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green linked up with him for four catches and 56 yards in the first half.
Rowe stepped on for his first snap with 8:28 remaining in the first quarter, then his second with 11:13 in the second, and third with 9:13 to go in the half.
Yet with 1:01 remaining before intermission and the Bengals’ offense beginning its next drive, the Patriots slowly began the transition to more three-cornerback personnel. As part of that transition, Rowe stayed on the field for three consecutive plays.
He’d play opposite former Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell as the left cornerback, and his next two opposite Green as the defense forced a three-and-out.
To start the second half, however, safety Duron Harmon would step back in as the deep man next to McCourty in dime sets. And while Rowe got his initial taste, that three-safety secondary with zone ingredients still led the way into the third.
Dalton found Green again then, as the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Bengals wideout left Ryan’s trailing responsibilities at the line and picked up 23 yards before Harmon closed in overhead. And on the next play, Dalton connected with rookie Tyler Boyd for 27 yards before McCourty and Butler met him.
The Bengals regained the lead, 14-10, only three plays later as LaFell hauled in a five-yarder versus Butler on a post route in the back of the end zone.
But there would be a swing upcoming. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower hit home for a safety on Dalton on Cincinnati’s next drive, and a touchdown by Rob Gronkowski would continue the shift as the Patriots made it a 19-14 game.
Rowe made his way back shortly thereafter with under five minutes remaining in the third quarter. He’d bounce between assignments, playing left corner, slot corner and right corner and ultimately giving up his first reception of the day against James Wright.
But that reception gained just a yard on a third-and-2 comeback route before Rowe, playing press-man, brought Wright to the turf and forced fourth down.
Rowe would kick over as Green’s primary coverage in the fourth quarter.
“We ended up putting Rowe on Green, and kind of changing that matchup from our nickel,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his postgame press conference. “We were using Pat in there – we still used him – we were using Pat in there more as kind of the third corner. But I thought Pat did a real good job on the tight ends. We had him in some of the dime situations where he was really the sixth DB on the field, or however you want to call it. Three corners and he was on the tight end. Again, I thought overall our coverage was better in the second half. We just matched it better. We played it better. We got a little more rush – obviously the lead, that helped, too, towards the end of the game. Some of those things fell into place for us.”
Things fell into place for the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Rowe versus Green. He lined up across the ball from No. 18 on nine pass plays, and held his own without holding too much in the process.
That was seen with 12:42 to go, as Rowe matched up with the five-time 1,000-yard receiver in the slot on third-and-2 from the New England seven.
Green released outside and used his inside shoulder as leverage, pushing off Rowe at the numbers. But Rowe wouldn’t let Green get too far. He wouldn’t let him get a free release, either. He stayed square and in the rangy receiver’s pocket, using his hands to disrupt as his hips and feet mirrored Green through the turn.
From there, Dalton delivered the ball to the back pylon. Rowe swiveled his head back in time to see it, and as he raised his hand to make a play on it, he left Green without a clear line of sight and with only one move to make.
A one-handed one.
Eric Rowe versus A.J. Green's corner route on third-and-2 in the fourth quarter. pic.twitter.com/rLGXZUnc45— Oliver Thomas (@OliverBThomas) October 17, 2016
The ball grazed its way to the ground instead, as Cincinnati’s field-goal unit headed on.
Green would be thrown to once more as the final frame winded down, with Rowe conceding a nine-yard catch on an out route from the slot. But after reeling in four catches for 56 yards in the first half, Green’s damage was minimized to the tune of two catches for 32 yards in the second half.
Rowe’s usage had a hand in that.
OPPOSITE CINCINNATI’S RECEIVERS
A.J. Green: 18 snaps, 1-of-2 passing for nine yards, deflection
Tyler Boyd: Three snaps
Alex Erickson: Two snaps
Brandon LaFell: Two snaps
James Wright: One snap, 1-of-1 passing for one yard, tackle
After logging six snaps in the first half, Rowe checked in for 20 second-half plays in what was a 35-17 Patriots victory. He lined up against five different Bengals and allowed 10 yards on 14 coverage snaps along the way.
“It was our first chance to see him in game action for us,” Belichick told reporters on his Monday morning conference call. “But I thought he did some good things. Not perfect, some things to work on, but he did some good things. The play he made on Green on the flag pattern there in the end zone was a very good play. We’ll keep working, I’m sure he’ll keep working, and we’ll just see where it takes us. But certainly an encouraging start.”
How that encouraging start will carry over in New England’s plans is unclear. But the ex-Eagle, who is under contract through 2018, was a clear part of the adjustment on Sunday.