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Patriots CB Eric Rowe is ready to make the postseason jump

The second-year corner has settled into the Patriots secondary well following the early September trade.

NFL: New York Jets at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots defensive back Eric Rowe is having a sophomore season to remember. The 2015 second-round pick was dealt to New England from Philadelphia for a 2018 conditional fourth-round pick early last September. The six-foot-one cornerback out of Utah had played three seasons at safety before switching in his senior season and impressed scouts with his frame and press coverage. However, Rowe had a rookie season that showed little promise.

Rowe had trouble settling into the Eagles’ defensive scheme, a concern that scouts had pointed out about being scheme-specific; yet, instead of attempting to mold Rowe into new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme, GM Howie Roseman decided to ship him off to New England. Keep in mind that this was an Eagles team that had just come off of ranking 28th in passing yards against and 31st in passing touchdowns against. Rich went into depth on the trade here.

The second-year corner also had difficulty settling into the Patriots’ defense, missing the first five games with an ankle injury. He was still trying to move up the depth chart and earn his keep in the locker room. That all changed after Seattle week.

The week after New England’s loss to Seattle, Rowe emerged as the cornerback opposite of Malcolm Butler. Rowe played 98% (118 of 120) of the Patriots’ defensive snaps the following two weeks before suffering a slight hamstring injury in week 13 that would hold him out the next game. Then, after returning in week 15, Rowe again built up his playing time, being on the field for 77%, 88%, and then 98% of New England’s defensive snaps for the last three regular season games.

Rowe finished the regular season leading Patriots defensive backs with an impressive 56.9 passer rating against, coming out ahead of Butler, who had a 76.3 passer rating against and Ryan, who had a 75.4 rating against (ratings from NESN’s Doug Kyed).

Overall, Rowe played 43.4% of the defensive snaps throughout the season, starting seven games and being inactive for seven games. His rise into the second cornerback spot initiated Logan Ryan’s move into the slot as the third corner, an upgrade from Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones, while allowing the Patriots to use Rowe’s length and physicality on the boundary.

Fans took notice of Rowe after the Patriots’ 41-3 beatdown on the New York Jets in week 16. Rowe made two noteworthy plays that stuck out, both against straight go-routes, a route that a quarterback would think to attack Rowe, the press cover corner, with.

The first clip shows Rowe against six-foot-four Brandon Marshall. With the Patriots having one safety high, Fitzpatrick tried his luck towards the boundary, targeting the second-year corner manned up against the six-time Pro Bowler.

Marshall’s physicality was no match for Rowe’s as, given the ball was underthrown, Rowe went up and high-pointed the ball with flawless technique for an interception. Rowe actually looked like the receiver on this play, reaching out to make a remarkable grab and put the Jets’ hopes on lifeline with a third turnover and a Patriots 13-0 lead in the second quarter.

This play shows Rowe manned up against Robby Anderson, a six-foot-three deep threat with a 4.34 forty-yard dash. After having no success targeting Marshall against Rowe, Fitzpatrick looked towards the speedster. Anderson had turned up his performance towards the end of the year, and Ryan Fitzpatrick knew he was going there from the start.

One knack on Rowe’s NFL draft profile was a “struggle to carry NFL deep speed.” The cornerback proved that doubt wrong against this nine-route, staying within a few feet of the receiver and finishing the play off with perfect closing speed. Rowe stayed with Anderson step for step on the route, showing textbook technique to go up at the right time and bat the ball down near the endzone for his second big play of the day.

These types of plays show the value that Rowe gives to the Patriots secondary. The ability to be left alone on an island in press coverage allows New England to become more versatile in other areas of the field.

The young cornerback has certainly proved his worth towards the final stretch of the regular season. Rowe hadn’t earned his spot as the second cornerback until after the bye week, however, he planted the seed in everyone’s mind that he could be a great asset in just his first game with the Patriots.

When the Patriots took on the Cincinnati Bengals in week six, Rowe was in his first action with the Patriots. With Coleman and Jones out, Rowe was called upon to man-up another six-time Pro Bowler, A.J. Green.

In this case, Rowe was defending in the slot on a pivotal third-down. Once again, Rowe was stride for stride with the receiver, setting himself up to make a big play on the ball.

I noted on my Twitter that Rowe had earned the trust from Belichick to take on “Brandon Browner role” in defending the bigger receivers man-to-man. Although, what’s interesting is the amount of trust that Belichick and Patricia have in Rowe. While Browner often saw safety help against the top, bigger receivers, given against a much more impressive group of quarterbacks in 2014, Rowe was left alone on all plays shown. Obviously the circumstances are different, but the similarities are there and it’s clear Belichick likes what he sees in Rowe.

Impressive plays like these give the Patriots flexibility to create the best matchups in the defensive backfield. Whether they face Jarvis Landry and the Dolphins, DeAndre Hopkins and the Texans, or Amari Cooper and the Raiders in the Divisional Round, New England will be able to mix-and-match to create the best possible defensive gameplan.

Rowe became an instrumental part down the stretch of a Patriots secondary that was 12th in the league for passing yards against, but top of the league with 15.6 points allowed per game. Also, with the Patriots the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, New England’s secondary could be destined to square off against NFC favorites Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan, or Aaron Rodgers, who are all in the talk of the MVP race.

Rowe has settled into his niche opposite of Butler and is ready to ride his success into the postseason. While this year’s secondary doesn’t have near the starpower of 2014’s secondary including Darrelle Revis, Browner, and Kyle Arrington, the trio of Butler, Rowe, and Ryan can hold their end.