FOXBOROUGH — Everyone and their mother knows Malcolm Butler will start for the Patriots against the Seahawks Sunday night, as he has every game. Besides, Seattle is kind of his thing. But who starts opposite him at cornerback?
The chief suspects are Eric Rowe and Logan Ryan, but the answer isn’t clear.
Ryan was on the field for 95.6 percent of snaps through Week 6, but his playing time has since taken a dive. He was used on only 31 of 73 snaps against the Steelers in Week 7 and 51 of 77 against the Bills in Week 8.
Rowe was inactive for the first five weeks of the season while rehabbing an ankle injury. The Patriots eased him in against the Bengals in Week 6, playing him for 38 percent of snaps. They liked what they saw enough to play him the entire game against the Steelers and start him against the Bills.
Rowe played 60 percent of the defensive snaps against Buffalo, but drew three penalties, including two 29-yard pass interference flags on drives that led to Bills touchdowns. He was taken out mid-game in favor of Ryan.
“That was a rough game for me,” Rowe said. “Not from, like, a skill set, just really those two PI calls.”
Rowe got back in at the end of the game when the Patriots had run up the score. He thought the flags were ticky-tack calls, but still felt he had let the team down.
“I watched the film and then the coaches, they also told me, you know, those weren’t really PI calls,” he said. “I watch other corners in the league and they do the same thing as me and they don’t get called for it.
“It was kind of a rough game at that moment because you don’t want to give up two DPIs. And God, and then the offense scored and I felt like it was all on me.”
Was Bill Belichick trying to figure out what he had in Rowe, who was acquired via trade with the Eagles in Week 1?
Is he hoping that Rowe will be an upgrade over Ryan down the stretch? Will one win the starting job for good or will it be determined by matchups going forward?
The snap counts and assignments against Seattle should be telling.
Ryan claimed not to care about starting, but Rowe said he’s driven to start.
“I mean, I care, obviously, everyone cares,” Rowe said. “We’ve got so many good corners and obviously they’ve been, maybe besides J Cole [Justin Coleman], but they’ve been to the Super Bowl and they have experience, so it’s not like you’re starting because you’re better. The coaches are still rolling us through.
“It pushes all of us ’cause we all want to start beside Malcolm.”
Because Rowe (6 feet 1 inch, 204 pounds) is larger than Ryan (5-11, 191), he could get the edge against Seattle. Safety Patrick Chung often is asked to cover tight ends, but a cornerback will have to deal with Jimmy Graham at some point, and Rowe’s size could help him in those situations.
Rowe said he’s never covered a player who is physically comparable to Graham in a game, but going against Rob Gronkowski in practice is similar. At 6-7, Graham towers over cornerbacks. But, as Rowe said, every inch counts.
“If the quarterback wants to throw it up in the air, at least I’ll challenge the ball, other than him just catching over [me] if I were like 5-9 or something, just catching over my head,” Rowe said. “I’ve got long arms, so he’s going to have to go over, some extra just to get over me, so that does give me like, not an advantage, but it helps me a lot.”
That’s not to say the Patriots haven’t trusted Ryan against bigger receivers. He has covered Larry Fitzgerald (6-3), Terrelle Pryor (6-6), and A.J. Green (6-4), among others, this season.
Neither player sees it as a competition, but both know Sunday presents an opportunity to impress.
“I’m just going to try to have my best games in the biggest games and I feel like this is a big one,” Ryan said.
Wide receiver Chris Hogan was added to the injury report Friday after he was surprisingly absent from the team’s shells-and-sweats workout in the morning. Hogan has a back injury and is questionable for Sunday.
Defensive end Chris Long also was missing at practice, but his absence was unrelated to an injury.
The three players who have been on the injury report all week — tight end Martellus Bennett (ankle), defensive tackle Alan Branch (back), and receiver Julian Edelman (foot) — were all limited in practice and listed as questionable.
Running back Dion Lewis, who will be activated from the 53-man roster before Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline, continued to practice with the team.
Linebacker Trevor Bates, signed to the practice squad Monday, is the only New England Patriot from, well, New England.
Bates, who grew up in Westbrook, Maine, and played for the University of Maine, was released by the Colts Oct. 13. He tried out for the Patriots and the Lions and couldn’t have been happier when he got the call from his home team.
“It worked out well for me,” he said. “I get to come back home and play ball for one of the greatest organizations in the league.”
Bates was giddy, chatting with reporters Wednesday about how well-wishing Mainers have been blowing up his phone all week.
“The support, the support, man, that I get is amazing,” he said. “Maine coaches players, friends, family, other people from Maine, everyone’s rooting for me and everyone’s supporting me and I’m just very grateful and want to make the most of the opportunity.”
Just going to work at Gillette Stadium seemed like a dream come true.
“I think it adds an extra sense of pride just stepping on the field and being able to play for your hometeam and represent New England, represent Maine, all the states in New England,” Bates said.
Did he love rooting for the Patriots as a kid?
“Not quite,” Bates said quietly. “I was a Philly fan. It is what it is.”