Eric Rowe is playing just his second season as a cornerback. The Eagles rookie spent his first three collegiate seasons at Utah as a shutdown free safety. Rowe said he is constantly learning at his new position. And his tests have been stiff.
Rowe matched up last week against Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson, one of the league's most imposing targets. And on Sunday, he'll be staring down New England quarterback Tom Brady, who Rowe said is the best quarterback he has ever seen at reading defenses.
It will be Rowe's first career start. The two-week stretch is the rookie's baptism by fire.
"I'm adjusting stuff every day out on the practice field," Rowe said. "Where I place my eyes, where I place my hands. Shoot, even in a press stance, I'm adjusting every day until I get comfortable and find a stance for myself. I know that will take time, but you just have to keep working on it."
Rowe, 23, was pushed into action on Thanksgiving when Nolan Carroll left the game with a leg injury. Carroll is out of the season after undergoing fibula surgery. The 6-foot-1 Rowe, one of the Eagles' tallest defensive backs, played man-to-man coverage on the 6-5 Johnson. Rowe yielded four catches for 53 yards, none more crushing than Johnson's 25-yard touchdown just before halftime on third-and-17.
Rowe was left lying on the turf as Johnson grabbed the pass with ease. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis said Rowe was hurt by playing too far off the line.
"I have to get more hands on receivers and definitely can't let them run. With Calvin being the best deep threat receiver, I surely did pay for that," Rowe said. "A couple of the good things, is I know I can cover. I covered him. Even when the ball didn't come, I was locked on him."
The Patriots will be without top targets Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Rowe will likely find himself matched up against Brandon LaFell or Danny Amendola, who was limited in practice this week after missing last week's game with a knee injury. Rowe said the injuries to the Patriots offense do not change the Eagles' preparation.
"We know that Tom Brady will utilize anybody," Rowe said. "He can pull a third-string tight end and go for 200 yards if you let him. It's kind of hard to anticipate what kind of personnel they're going to run. That's the only tough part about it."
The Eagles drafted Rowe in April's second round. He recorded his first interception in Week 3 against the New York Jets. Rowe played strong the following week against Washington. He has a chance this week against one of the league's top offenses to prove that he's better than he was on Thanksgiving. Every game, Rowe said, is an opportunity to show your worth to the entire league. And every game is proving to be a new test.
"I think it's time for him to go out there and see what we have," Davis said. "I think Eric grew a little bit. He just has to get up there, believe in himself and challenge them."