THIS IS ERIC ROWE'S third week as a starting NFL cornerback.
First time out, he faced Tom Brady. Sunday, it was Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor, a quarterback with a less impressive resumé but a similar 2015 passer rating; Rowe mostly covered either Sammy Watkins or Robert Woods, both formidable threats.
This Sunday night, the opposing QB is Arizona's Carson Palmer, who ranks second in the NFL to Brady in passing yards (4,003 to Brady's 4,138), throwing to a wide receiving group with three members ranked in the NFL's top 50 in yardage - seventh-ranked Larry Fitzgerald (96 catches for 1,088 yards and seven touchdowns), 18th-ranked John Brown (55 for 895 and five) and 46th-ranked Michael Floyd (40 for 652 and six). For perspective, the Eagles have one receiver ranked in the top 50 - Jordan Matthews is 37th with 64 catches for 680 yards and four TDs.
Fitzgerald usually lines up in the slot, so he'll probably be Malcolm Jenkins' problem much of the evening, but Palmer, play-actioning to the NFL's 10th-ranked rushing attack, throwing to Brown or Floyd against a rookie corner making his third start, will be a big area of concern. That's especially since the Cardinals' offensive balance makes it impossible for Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis to give Rowe much help.
"As soon as you give help to one, the ball goes to someone else," Davis said Tuesday, as the 6-7 Eagles began preparations to host the 11-2 Cardinals. "As soon as you move the help over there, it goes back the other way. So that's part of the reason they're putting 400 yards up a game and 31 points, because they spread it out and they take what you give them."
"It's going to be a huge challenge," Rowe said Tuesday. "There's one every week."
Rowe said the main thing he has learned, since being thrown into the fire when Nolan Carroll went down with a broken fibula at Detroit on Thanksgiving, is "I can run with these guys."
"Once I was out there a couple of drives, it felt just like college," Rowe said. "Something that I'm used to and comfortable with.
"John Brown, he's got a gun on him - he can run," Rowe said of the player the Cards took five slots after the Eagles drafted Josh Huff in 2014's third round. "You've got to get ahead on him and stay on top of him, can't let him go deep. Michael Floyd (6-2, 220), you gotta play strong with him - obviously, he's a big-body guy, physical guy. He can push you over. You can't let that happen . . . I could see both of them."
Jenkins, the safety and nickel corner who quarterbacks the secondary, played a lot of snaps for a Super Bowl winner as a rookie in New Orleans in 2009. He said he doesn't think Rowe is being asked to do anything extraordinary.
"He's not really 'thrown into a tough situation,' " Jenkins said, after a questioner used that term. "The only tough situation he's had was the middle of a game . . . prime-time Thanksgiving Day against the best receiver in the league (Calvin Johnson). That's a tough situation. Now, we're just asking him to play football. That's what he wants to do. That's what he's here for.
"He's prepared for this moment. 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."
Rowe didn't play any defensive snaps in a four-game stretch from the Oct. 19 Giants game through the Nov. 15 loss to Miami that started a three-game Eagles slide. He got six snaps against Tampa, then has played 212 the past three weeks.
"I didn't know what to expect as a rookie," Rowe said. He said he knew Carroll or Byron Maxwell would have to be injured for him to play much.
"When I was sitting on the bench, I was taking a lot from them," he said. "Hints and advice, they'd give me, that when my time came, the opportunity, I could shine with it."
Still, "you kind of have to see it, to really learn it," he acknowledged. "Every week is brand-new," with a quarterback he has never faced.
"I guess that's the life of a rookie," Rowe said.
The Bills didn't throw at Rowe very much, even when he was matched against Watkins.
"I think Eric did a nice job at the line of scrimmage," Davis said. "I think he's really getting better and getting more confidence. You saw in the Detroit game when he was playing off (the receiver), 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 (somebody) with speed like Sammy has.
"So he got up there, challenged him, put his hands on him, and I think it makes a quarterback go away from that guy pretty quick if you've got a good jam going on."
"These guys are fast. You get a hand on them, you can kind of control 'em for the first 5 yards," Rowe said. "If that's the first read, you can kind of take him out of it. With our great d-line, they can get pressure real fast" as the QB is forced through progressions.
When the Eagles drafted Rowe from Utah in the second round last spring, there was speculation about using him at safety, since he had played there before moving to corner his senior year. That speculation continued through the preseason, when Rowe seemed hesitant playing outside. Maybe he had the long-levered size (6-1, 205) Chip Kelly and Davis covet at corner without having the instincts or the explosive quickness the position requires in the NFL.
It's still really early in Rowe's career, but 324 defensive snaps in, he doesn't look slow.
"He's been doing some great things," reserve corner E.J. Biggers said. "I love to watch him play."