It didn't take long for Tom Brady to test Eric Rowe.
On the Patriots' first offensive series two weeks ago, the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback was flushed out of the pocket. Rowe was matched up against Brandon LaFell. The Patriots wide receiver pales in comparison to Detroit's Calvin Johnson, who had gotten the best of the Eagles cornerback in the previous game.
But Rowe was making his first career start, and Brady more than compensated for LaFell. It was third down and long, so Rowe didn't press at the line. LaFell ran a straight "go" route and the rookie kept pace. Even when the pressured Brady launched his pass and his receiver tried to separate, Rowe was on his heels.
The ball landed several yards ahead of LaFell. The Patriots punted. It was an inconsequential moment in a game full of more significant ones. But for Rowe, it was monumental.
"It was the first deep shot," Rowe said Wednesday. "Tom Brady just chucked it up. Knowing that his receiver wasn't going to run away from me, after that, it kind of clicked in my head that I could play with anyone."
Confidence is key to playing a position in which you are often on an island. And Rowe was brimming with it after the Patriots game. Brady went at him 12 times, but he allowed just four passes for 42 yards and had two pass breakups.
Rowe had to cover the more talented Sammy Watkins for most of last week. But the results were essentially the same. He was targeted five times by Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor and allowed only two catches for 26 yards.
"I think he's really getting better and getting more confidence," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "You saw in the first Detroit game when he was playing off [the line of scrimmage], he wasn't playing real well, and then he went up and challenged.
"You've got to believe in yourself to go up there and challenge somebody, especially [someone] with speed like Sammy has."
It won't get any easier in the final three games of the season, starting with Sunday's. The Cardinals have arguably the most dangerous air attack in the NFL, and Rowe will be charged with covering either the speedy John Brown or the big-bodied Malcolm Floyd on the outside.
Whether he's on Brown, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, or the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Floyd, Rowe said he won't change his press-man technique. He tinkered with it for weeks as he mostly watched starters Byron Maxwell and Nolan Carroll from the sideline. But now it's been battle-tested.
"I don't back up anymore. I try to get a hand on him quicker," Rowe said of his technique. "In past weeks, I would give a little ground. It's easier for me to stay up there because I have long arms. I just had to figure out how to use them. Be more aggressive at the line."
Rowe very much remains a work in progress. But the fact that he was able to effectively step in for Carroll, who suffered a season-ending broken ankle against the Lions, suggests that the job is his beyond this season. Carroll's contract expires in March.
The Eagles didn't trade up for Rowe in the second round without the expectation that he would someday start. Some teams viewed him as more of a safety coming out of Utah, and Davis tried him in the slot during training camp, but the Eagles stuck to their initial evaluation that Rowe was best-suited to play on the outside.
So far, they appear to have gotten it correct.
"He's growing. He has played really well in his opportunities," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "I think he's a highly competitive guy. He can be physical at the line of scrimmage. He can run with people. He's tall. He's long. He's exactly what we're looking for as a corner."
Despite some preseason struggles, Rowe didn't seem overwhelmed when pressed into action against the New York Jets and Redskins in Weeks 3 and 4. He notched an interception when targeted deep in the first game, and, even though he probably gave Washington receiver Ryan Grant too much space underneath, he wasn't beat over the top.
Facing Johnson was a different story. Rowe gave up his share, but he also broke up a few. He saw only the mistakes.
"That was a rough game all around," Rowe said. "I wasn't too down. But it was the plays away from the ball that I didn't do so good that you wouldn't see unless you watched film."
Rowe is still getting accustomed to playing in zone. Davis calls a lot of Cover 3 and 4. Rowe's responsibility there is often the deep quarter or third. But the Eagles want to see him come up and challenge more throws.
"Sometimes in an attempt to not give up a big play, he'll make sure that he's deep and over the top, and that's what we want him to do," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "But as he gets more and more comfortable and more confident, we want him to start to . . . stop . . . these intermediate routes."
But that will come with time and confidence. There's already so much to like. He already may be the Eagles' best tackler at cornerback.
"When he tackles he also has a knack for punching that ball out," Davis said. "If you look at all his tackles outside, unlike [Maxwell], who is kind of punching instead of tackling, he's tackling as he's punching."
The Eagles were patient. They had hoped to get a full season out of Carroll. But Rowe seems more than capable.
"He's prepared for this moment," Jenkins said. "We really made sure that we kind of kept him off the field until he really felt comfortable with his maturation process, making sure the game is not too fast for him. . . . We think that he's now more than ready to go out there and play, and he's played really well for us."