#Patriots “Making the Leap” Candidate: Eric Rowe

When the Patriots acquired then Eagles cornerback Eric Rowe last fall the trade, from an Eagles perspective, was based largely on Rowe’s standing with the Eagles coaching staff.

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s took over the Eagles defense in 2016, and quickly encouraged the Eagles front office to sign veteran Leodis McKelvin, whom Schwartz thought was a better fit for his defense than Rowe. Rowe quickly plummeted down the Eagles depth chart, and when it came apparent he would not see the field barring injury, GM Howie Roseman shipped him off to New England.

In short, Eric Rowe didn’t do anything wrong as a member of the Eagles, and was traded in large part due to the fact that Schwartz just wasn’t a believer. As a rookie, Rowe allowed a passer rating of 88.4 into his coverage, according to PFF*, which is respectable, especially for a rookie. Furthermore, he allowed three touchdowns while in coverage, but two of them were one on one vs Calvin Johnson, and the other was against Brandin Cooks.

It’s safe to say that Jim Schwartz messed up his evaluation of Rowe, who was the Eagles’ second round pick in the 2015 draft. However, there is one element to his game that Rowe improved on tremendously with the Patriots, and that’s locating and making a play on passes thrown his way. As a rookie, Rowe would lose the ball in the air and get out-positioned by the receiver at the catch point. That’s how Johnson was able to score twice on Rowe in Week 12 of 2015.

With the Patriots, Rowe has developed into arguable the team’s best corner in terms of ball skills, although both Malcolm Butler and newly signed Stephon Gilmore are also very good in that respect. Rowe’s development in terms of defending deep passes, or passes over his head, has also took a big leap in year two with the Pats.

Rowe has become a very solid outside corner for the Patriots, and has carved out a role as the teams third corner by going toe-to-toe with some of the best receivers in the NFL.

Let’s take a look at some of Rowe’s 2016 highlights, and a few areas that need improvement. If he can clean up some things that plagued him in 2016, he’s primed for a breakout season with the Pats in 2017.

Man Coverage

Coverage vs Deep Passes: One of the knocks on Rowe as an Eagle was that he was susceptible to getting beat deep on passes over his head. Some thought that this was due to a lack of top end speed, but Rowe and the Patriots coaching staff realized that wasn’t the issue. The main issue was with Rowe’s approach to these type’s of passes. In Philly, Rowe was losing ground to receivers on deep balls because he was looking up for the ball instead of playing the receivers hands. In New England, and in most places, defensive backs are taught to run on a receivers back hip, and then make a play on the football at the catch point. As you can see from these examples, Rowe quickly fixed his issues with locating deep balls by adhering to those fundamentals. He then took it to the next level, and began to make plays on the football (pass breakups) on these types of throws. His interception against the Jets, where he was in man coverage against Brandon Marshall, is textbook in terms of positioning, and ball skills. It was one of the prettiest INT’s the Pats had all last season.

Matchups vs Big/Star Wide Receivers: As you can see, Rowe drew some tough assignments last season, and he wasn’t afraid to get physical with some of the game’s best receivers. Above, you already saw him go up against Brandon Marshall and the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas. Against the Bengals, Rowe drew the difficult assignment of running with All-Pro receiver A.J. Green and in the Super Bowl he took on another All-Pro in Julio Jones. Against Green, Rowe breaks up a would be touchdown with great coverage. He get’s away with a little savvy pull on the arm, but Rowe turns that into a low percentage throw for Andy Dalton. In the Super Bowl, the stats won’t be friendly to Rowe, as Julio Jones got the better of him, but as you can see it wasn’t really Rowe’s fault. Jones made two ridiculous catches against him, including one of the best catches in Super Bowl history. You can see Rowe’s 6-1 frame and nastiness come into play. He likes to get his hands on receivers early, and he finishes plays late.

Change of Direction: The weakest part of Rowe’s game is that he can often be beat by quick changes in direction, which is exacerbated even more when he plays in the slot. My guess is that this is where Schwartz was concerned most about Rowe in his defense. He’s a bit stiff in the hips, and doesn’t react quickly to certain routes. In other words, you ask him to defend in a straight line and he’s fine, but the second the receiver incorporates a move into his route it get’s dicey. The inability to change direction quickly is one reason that some thought Rowe was better suited at safety than corner, where he could use his speed and athleticism to disrupt passes. In order to take his game to the next level, Rowe will have to be more fluid in his hips, and be able to defend more than just go routes. Above, Demaryius Thomas loses Rowe easily on a comeback route to the sideline, and Rowe doesn’t make the effort to recover either. Top tier corners don’t get lost as frequently as Rowe under those circumstances.

Rub/Pick Routes: Another area of Rowe’s game that needs improvement is navigating traffic on concepts that are designed to beat man coverage with rubs or picks. All across the NFL teams use these concepts to combat tight man-to-man coverage, which has become a staple of many defenses in this era of football. Josh McDaniels and the Patriots use these route combinations constantly to create separation for their receivers. The Dolphins, and head coach Adam Gase, are known for these types of routes as well. Gase, is one of the brightest offensive minds in football, and he understands both the strengths of his receivers, and how to create easy throws against man coverage. In the first two examples, you see Rowe get caught by the Miami play design, and it creates large gains in the passing game. First, you’d like to see him fight through the traffic a bit better, but more importantly, he needs to diagnose what’s coming pre-snap. On the first example, Miami has two receivers stacked to the quarterback’s right, and Rowe is not pressing at the line. You can see Logan Ryan point out the stacked formation to Rowe, but Rowe stays where he is. Ideally, you’d like to see Rowe diagnose the concept, and cheat over the pick or over Ryan to make room for himself to stick with his man. Against the Rams, Rowe get’s beat by a trips bunch formation on a vintage man beater. The play is designed to create that long run for the outside corner on the crossing route. If you ask me, teams should immediately switch to a zone coverage defensively when they see bunch formations. The inside corner should cover the middle of the field, the middle CB goes deep, and the outside CB covers the flat. The Pats get caught in man coverage against a route concept designed to beat it.

Zone Coverage

In 2016 Rowe showed that he can be a very productive corner when asked to play zone coverage. He has a great understanding of the space he’s supposed to cover in zone, and when he can and cannot take chances. You can see his natural football instincts and athleticism take over in this instances, and he might actually be better in zone than he is in man. The Patriots play a variety of different zones, as do most teams, but they usually stick to cover-2 and cover-3. Below, you’ll see how Rowe excels in both types of coverage.

Cover-3 Zone: As the outside corner, Rowe’s primary responsibility in cover-3 is to account for 1/3 of the deep portion of the field. Here, you’ll see him do that, but also pay attention to how he reads the quarterback. In both examples, the quarterback thinks he has the perfect play called against the coverage, but Rowe’s ability to read the play spoils the party. Against the Jets, Rowe carries the outside receiver at first, but when the outside receiver stops, he quickly reacts to the receiver running free in the middle of the field. Fitzpatrick has the man open, but Rowe makes a great play on the ball, and arrives just in time to break up the pass. Against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game, Roethlisberger thinks he has the Pats caught in a busted coverage as soon as the receiver runs past the the initial defender, but Rowe is exactly where he’s supposed to be, playing the deep third of the field, and it’s an easy interception. It’s a bad read by Roethlisberger, and the pass is under thrown, but Rowe sniffs out the route, and is in perfect position.

Cover-2 Zone: In cover-2, the outside corner has a much different responsibility than in cover-3. His main assignment is to drop (depending on how it’s coached) 10-15 yards from the LOS into the flat, and either carry the outside receiver to that point, or drive on any passes thrown into the flat. In this example, Rowe does his job perfectly. He carries the tight end downfield, while keeping his eyes in on the quarterback, waiting to pounce on any throws into the flat. That’s exactly where Landry Jones goes with the football (this was during the regular season), and Rowe drives on the pass, and knocks the ball out just by contacting the receiver at the right time. Can’t play it any better than that.

Against the Run

Rowe was a very good tackler in 2016. Against the run, he missed just one tackle in 161 run snaps, and added four run stops, according to PFF*. The Patriots have very simple instructions for their corners vs the run, and that is to not allow any ball carrier outside. It sounds easy, but when run plays are designed to go up the middle, it’s even easier to get sucked in to the play. Often times, that can lead to big plays when running backs see those outside defenders creep in, and they’ll suddenly bounce the run outside. Rowe did his job vs the run by staying outside, and when called upon made the tackle. The best example of this came against Jets running back Matt Forte. The Patriots defense does a good job of shutting down the play up the middle, and Forte tries to bounce it, but is met there by Rowe in perfect position, who takes him to the ground with some force. You can see why the Patriots traded for Rowe, as he’s a willing and able tackler, something Belichick requires of all his defensive backs.

Conclusion

Eric Rowe deserves a lot of credit for taking his game to the next level in New England. We give a lot of credit to the Pats coaching staffing for taking castaways from other teams, and turning them into productive players, but Rowe deserves the lions share of the credit here. The Patriots coaching staff cleaned up a lot of Rowe’s technique in coverage, but he always had the talent, and it showed in nine games with the Pats in 2016.

The Patriots brought in Stephon Gilmore to take on a lot of the responsibilities that Rowe handled last season, such as matchups with some of the games top wideouts, but Rowe will surely factor into the cornerback group nonetheless.

Barring injury, one would expect that Rowe will see a bulk of the snaps as the third corner behind Gilmore and Malcolm Butler, but in reality he’s probably a #2 corner on most teams. That’s great depth to have behind two Pro Bowlers, and if there’s an injury to either, Rowe will be able to handle playing more snaps.

Rowe may never be as quick or fluid in his hips as Malcolm Butler, but he has a lot of skill in other areas of cornerback play. He can matchup against bigger wide receivers, fits in well in the Patriots’ zone concepts, and can handle himself against the run.

If he can remain consistent in those three phases, and continue to improve his football IQ in terms of diagnosing nuances in opposing offenses, Eric Rowe will be a household name around the NFL.