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Patriots’ cornerback carousel finally stabilizes

December 10, 2016 GMT

FOXBORO — Over the last three weeks, cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe played well enough to solidify their roles after the Patriots’ extensive trial-and-error process.

With Malcolm Butler as the team’s No. 1 corner, the Pats rotated the remaining bodies during the first two months of the season to sort out the depth chart. Now, they’ve essentially concluded Butler, Ryan and Rowe are the best trio for the nickel packages as they roll toward the playoffs.

Don’t discount the importance of that element down the stretch.

“Chemistry is key. Chemistry is definitely key,” Ryan said. “It’s something you can’t track, but it definitely affects a team. I’ve been on championship-level teams and I’ve been on teams that are just a little bit short, so I think chemistry is definitely the difference when it comes to making great runs. But we’re also deep. We’re a good team, so we’re deep at a lot of positions, so you’ve got to get players in the game so you can see if they can do it from practice.”

Over the last three games, quarterbacks targeting Ryan are 3-of-12 for 36 yards, and Ryan has four pass breakups. Rowe has two breakups while holding quarterbacks to 4-of-12 for 45 yards. That occurred against underwhelming QBs in Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jared Goff, and the challenge will heighten in the coming weeks, including Monday night against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

Yet even if there aren’t any style points for performing well against lousy offenses, it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

Ryan and Rowe also stabilized the back end after the Patriots mixed and matched Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones with Ryan and Rowe earlier in the season, as coach Bill Belichick was assessing his group’s performances.

The determination was that Rowe is at his best on the right defensive side with Butler on the left and Ryan in the slot.

“I’ve been everywhere,” Ryan said while referencing a variety of assignments during his four-year career. “I’ve been predominantly inside, predominantly outside, matchup, follow guys, don’t (follow guys), play zone. I think I’m a guy who is capable of doing everything. I’m just trying to do everything well, and that’s what I’m focused on.”

As a side benefit of playing in the slot, Ryan has blitzed a tad more frequently, and that was on display Sunday against the Rams when he had a sack and quarterback hit. The Patriots typically like to blitz a defensive back from the blindside slot, and Ryan has fared well with that during his career.

Ryan and Rowe struggled at points this season — for different reasons. Ryan tends to play at his best when he draws consistent playing time and his role is better defined. That’s possibly why his struggles came to a head against the Seahawks when he surrendered four completions on nine targets for 86 yards and a touchdown.

And Rowe, a second-round pick in 2015 who was acquired in Week 1 from the Eagles, played well in Weeks 6-7 when he cracked the lineup. But he came crashing down in Week 8 against the Bills, yielding three completions on six targets for 43 yards and getting flagged three times, twice for pass interference. He was then a healthy scratch against the Seahawks.

“I kind of had to change my mentality, not that I had a bad one,” Rowe said. “But the way I practice, each week now, I just forget about the game and focus on building and getting reps, especially through this run in December.

“Obviously, they have a lot of trust in me, so I’ve got to keep building on that. The main thing here is consistency, so there’s no time to get relaxed because it can quickly change. I’m focused on keep building and be consistent. If you relax, you can have a bad game on any day of the week. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, what their record says. Everyone is good in the NFL, so it’s really important to be consistent. That’s something you’ve got to learn over time.

“You can have two really good games, but the minute you let off, you can have a really bad game. That’s the thing I’ve just got to keep building on.”

Rowe’s status for Monday night is up in the air because he tweaked his hamstring against the Rams, but his overall point remains. The Patriots needed to halt the cornerback carousel and forge a solid pecking order before facing better quarterbacks in the playoffs. Because Ryan and Rowe emerged, the Pats have gotten a jump on that process.

“I’m just trying to embrace whatever the coaches ask me to do,” Ryan said. “Go out there and play hard and try to put my imprint on the game, which is to run around, tackle, get pass defenses, hopefully come up with some interceptions soon and try to make my impact felt in whatever capacity that may be.

“That’s always my goal, and that’s starting to show a little bit more.”