FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots finally had a good thing going at cornerback. Then Eric Rowe injured his hamstring late in their Week 13 win over the Los Angeles Rams and uncertainty now returns to the position.
The Patriots have played Rowe on the right side, Malcolm Butler on the left and Logan Ryan in the slot over their last three games and found success. (I know, I know. Consider the opponent.) They previously tried Ryan outside and both Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones in the cornerback rotation but struggled defending the pass.
Rowe has allowed just four catches on 12 targets for 45 yards with a pass breakup during the last three games against the San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets and Rams. Ryan has surrendered seven catches on 15 targets for 64 yards with three pass breakups, while Butler has let up 11 catches on 18 targets for 219 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception and two pass breakups in that span.
If Rowe has to sit out with his hamstring injury, it throws a wrench in New England’s plans to move forward with its current plan. Belichick revealed his intention to stick with this alignment last week.
“We sort of saw this coming over the bye, kind of looking ahead at the next few games and the next part of our schedule,” Belichick said. “Defensively where we are is kind of where we want it to be here through this period. I think (Ryan)’s really done a good job in there of playing not only the slot position but the communication, the decision making, some of the adjustments that come from that inside spot that have to relate to linebackers, sometimes the end, certainly the safeties that there are a lot of moving parts in there that a good experienced player at that position — it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.”
Rowe still was in the process of building experience at cornerback before his injury. He played safety until his senior season at Utah, where he switched to cornerback. He played cornerback as a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles, switched defensive systems in his second year, then was traded to the Patriots in September.
“I think there’s still a lot of growth in him at the corner position just getting confident playing in a scheme, getting confident playing with your teammates, where your help is,” Belichick said last week. “When you’re playing out there at corner it’s important to understand where your help is, whether it’s in man coverage or in zone coverage and what you have to take away, what somebody else can take away, what they can’t take away. You can’t cover everything out there so you have to take away something and you’re a little light on something else.”
Rowe was putting too much pressure on himself as he was still adjusting to the position. He began to flourish as the team simplified it for him.
“I had the mindset of ‘I have to cover every single route’ and realistically, you can’t really do that as a corner,” Rowe said. “I finally started playing to my help and strength, and it helped me a lot. It really helped me get settled in here.”
Rowe was present for Wednesday’s practice but participated in just stretching and one drill before departing the field. The Patriots can move Ryan back outside and put Coleman in the slot, or they can make Jones, who is struggling with confidence as a returner and let up a touchdown in limited snaps Sunday, a full-time player if Rowe sits out in Week 13.
New England just has to hope the secondary can pick up where it left off over the last three weeks when Rowe returns.
Thumbnail photo via Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports Images