Patriots

Rowe making plays to stand out in a deep cornerback group

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Rowe making plays to stand out in a deep cornerback group

FOXBORO -- Eric Rowe knows he has some work to do to carve out playing time in New England, but he's started training camp on the right foot.

Bill Belichick will tell you -- in a long and sarcastic answer -- that it's dangerous to read into camp practices that don't involve pads, but it's been hard not to notice that when Rowe has been on the field he's often found a way to get his hands on the football. 

On Thursday he picked off Jimmy Garoppolo during a seven-on-seven drill and excitedly scampered up the sideline the other way. On Friday, he got Garoppolo again during a team drill. This time he was tight on Devin Lucien, and Garoppolo's back-shoulder throw ended up in Rowe's lap. 

"I saw the ball in his pocket," Rowe said, "and I just kind of put my arm in there . . . Just happened to fall in my lap at the same time when I hit the ground. It is kind of how I wanted to play it. I try to look for the ball, but I was a half-second late, but that's OK. I usually go for the pocket, try to punch it out, rip it out."

Rowe also broke up a pass from Tom Brady that was intended for Julian Edelman, and in a 4-on-3 drill he broke up another Garoppolo throw to Lucien. The 6-foot-1 corner has had Garoppolo's number for two days as he broke up one of the backup's passes on Thursday as well. 

That's two picks and three passes defended in a handful of up-tempo drills over the course of the last two days. Not a bad way to start. But he understands has an uphill climb to earn a role in the Patriots defense. 

Malcolm Butler remains the team's top corner, and the signing of Stephon Gilmore meant that any thoughts Rowe might've had of becoming the No. 2 with Logan Ryan gone evaporated. 

"I think I was on vacation, and I saw it on ESPN and I was like 'Whoa,' " Rowe said of the Gilmore signing. "That threw me off. But it's just another challenge in a way. He got here, he’s a great teammate, he’s a real cool guy. Now he’s just someone to work with now.

"How it affects me? Yeah, it kind of puts me down depth chart wise, but my mindset is to just come out here and keep making plays."

There's not much else for him to do. Gilmore's big-money deal signed this offseason means the Patriots have big plans for him. And Malcolm Butler seems intent on proving every day that he remains the team's top corner even if he's not being paid as a No. 1. 

"Right now, in my head, I'm not even thinking about, 'I'm competing with Malcolm or Steph or competing for third.' In my head right now, it's just, 'How am I going to get better each day? How am I going to prove myself?' Obviously you gotta do that before you can say, 'Yeah, I'm trying to get the top spot. I'm still trying to prove myself. I'm trying to show the coaches I can fit in the system and play multiple roles. Right now, just trying to string together consistent days of good work."

One of the few questions about the Patriots that has lingered since the offseason is about the No. 3 corner role. The Patriots need someone to handle the slot duties with Ryan now in Tennessee. Could it be Rowe? What about Jonathan Jones? Or last year's second-rounder Cyrus Jones?

Rowe doesn't have the look of the shorter, waterbug-type slots that dot the league. But his length and standout quickness for his size (6.7 three-cone drill at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2015) could be of value on the interior. 

Even his safety experience in college could help. Belichick has said many times that there are elements of playing safety that transfer to the "star" position in the slot and vice versa. 

Rowe's been more than open to the idea of playing inside if it will get him on the field. 

"I’m trying to be more versatile so I can go inside or out," he explained. "In the spring, I kept telling the coaches, ‘Hey, I got the cornerback spot.' Not like I got it down 100 percent, but I got a much better understanding. You know, 'I’m studying the slot role, try me out.' 

"They threw me in and I had a little bit of success, so it’s not like a focus focus, but for me, I’m trying to learn all the spots.” 

Rowe size and athleticism make him an ideal insurance policy behind Gilmore, but if he can prove himself on the interior as well, then the Patriots will continue to have a variety of options based on the matchups they're presented from week-to-week.

For teams with multiple big-bodied receivers (like Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess), maybe Rowe could match up with one on the outside. For teams with a bigger slot receiver (like Atlanta's Mohamed Sanu), maybe Rowe's the best matchup there. 

If Rowe can continue to perform as he has in training camp thus far, the Patriots will find a way to get him on the field however they can. 

EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

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EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

0:55 - Patriots playing great as they stream roll the Raiders but Koppen explains that Belichick will knock them down as he strives for perfection. Also talk about how it takes a couple months into the season for the coaches and players to learn each other again.

5:40 - Stephon Gilmore playing excellent lined up against Michael Crabtree. Malcolm Butler bounces back but gives up the only score to Amari Cooper. Koppen suggest Butler’s contract situation might be affecting his play. 

7:50 - All in on the Patriots defense yet? Giardi and Koppen discuss the defensive play and the upcoming offenses the Patriots will be facing.

10:30 - Dan Koppen talks about job security in the NFL and if he ever worried about somebody else taking his job, and the cutthroat nature of the Patriots. 

13:50 - Tom Brady picking apart the Raiders and Jack Del Rio’s defenses throughout his career. 

17:45 - A debate about Patriots backup quarterbacks and if Matt Cassel was actually a good NFL QB. 

21:20 - A few game notes: Rex Burkhead’s fumble vs. the Raiders, LaAdrian Waddle filling in for Marcus Cannon. 

Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0. 

Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat. 

Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL. 

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According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards. 

And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more. 

"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game. 

"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . . 

"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."

A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score. 

Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.

"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field." 

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