Most improved: Running game or defense?

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Most improved: Running game or defense?

The Patriots did two things really well on Sunday that they didn't do in more than spurts last season: run the ball and defend well.

Mike Felger likes the way the Pats ran the ball, saying that it not only helps the offensive line who is still working on protecting Brady, but it also takes pressure off of Brady.

Andy Gresh notes that it makes the Pats much more complimentary in terms of the pass and the run together.

But is a run game the missing ingredient to a Super Bowl win? Or is it defense? Most likely, it's both.

Rowe making plays to stand out in a deep cornerback group

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Rowe making plays to stand out in a deep cornerback group

FOXBORO -- Eric Rowe knows he has some work to do to carve out playing time in New England, but he's started training camp on the right foot.

Bill Belichick will tell you -- in a long and sarcastic answer -- that it's dangerous to read into camp practices that don't involve pads, but it's been hard not to notice that when Rowe has been on the field he's often found a way to get his hands on the football. 

On Thursday he picked off Jimmy Garoppolo during a seven-on-seven drill and excitedly scampered up the sideline the other way. On Friday, he got Garoppolo again during a team drill. This time he was tight on Devin Lucien, and Garoppolo's back-shoulder throw ended up in Rowe's lap. 

"I saw the ball in his pocket," Rowe said, "and I just kind of put my arm in there . . . Just happened to fall in my lap at the same time when I hit the ground. It is kind of how I wanted to play it. I try to look for the ball, but I was a half-second late, but that's OK. I usually go for the pocket, try to punch it out, rip it out."

Rowe also broke up a pass from Tom Brady that was intended for Julian Edelman, and in a 4-on-3 drill he broke up another Garoppolo throw to Lucien. The 6-foot-1 corner has had Garoppolo's number for two days as he broke up one of the backup's passes on Thursday as well. 

That's two picks and three passes defended in a handful of up-tempo drills over the course of the last two days. Not a bad way to start. But he understands has an uphill climb to earn a role in the Patriots defense. 

Malcolm Butler remains the team's top corner, and the signing of Stephon Gilmore meant that any thoughts Rowe might've had of becoming the No. 2 with Logan Ryan gone evaporated. 

"I think I was on vacation, and I saw it on ESPN and I was like 'Whoa,' " Rowe said of the Gilmore signing. "That threw me off. But it's just another challenge in a way. He got here, he’s a great teammate, he’s a real cool guy. Now he’s just someone to work with now.

"How it affects me? Yeah, it kind of puts me down depth chart wise, but my mindset is to just come out here and keep making plays."

There's not much else for him to do. Gilmore's big-money deal signed this offseason means the Patriots have big plans for him. And Malcolm Butler seems intent on proving every day that he remains the team's top corner even if he's not being paid as a No. 1. 

"Right now, in my head, I'm not even thinking about, 'I'm competing with Malcolm or Steph or competing for third.' In my head right now, it's just, 'How am I going to get better each day? How am I going to prove myself?' Obviously you gotta do that before you can say, 'Yeah, I'm trying to get the top spot. I'm still trying to prove myself. I'm trying to show the coaches I can fit in the system and play multiple roles. Right now, just trying to string together consistent days of good work."

One of the few questions about the Patriots that has lingered since the offseason is about the No. 3 corner role. The Patriots need someone to handle the slot duties with Ryan now in Tennessee. Could it be Rowe? What about Jonathan Jones? Or last year's second-rounder Cyrus Jones?

Rowe doesn't have the look of the shorter, waterbug-type slots that dot the league. But his length and standout quickness for his size (6.7 three-cone drill at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2015) could be of value on the interior. 

Even his safety experience in college could help. Belichick has said many times that there are elements of playing safety that transfer to the "star" position in the slot and vice versa. 

Rowe's been more than open to the idea of playing inside if it will get him on the field. 

"I’m trying to be more versatile so I can go inside or out," he explained. "In the spring, I kept telling the coaches, ‘Hey, I got the cornerback spot.' Not like I got it down 100 percent, but I got a much better understanding. You know, 'I’m studying the slot role, try me out.' 

"They threw me in and I had a little bit of success, so it’s not like a focus focus, but for me, I’m trying to learn all the spots.” 

Rowe size and athleticism make him an ideal insurance policy behind Gilmore, but if he can prove himself on the interior as well, then the Patriots will continue to have a variety of options based on the matchups they're presented from week-to-week.

For teams with multiple big-bodied receivers (like Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess), maybe Rowe could match up with one on the outside. For teams with a bigger slot receiver (like Atlanta's Mohamed Sanu), maybe Rowe's the best matchup there. 

If Rowe can continue to perform as he has in training camp thus far, the Patriots will find a way to get him on the field however they can. 

Giardi: Two more picks for Jimmy G., but . . .

Giardi: Two more picks for Jimmy G., but . . .

FOXBORO -- The tweets stacked up on your timeline right around 12:30 this afternoon. Jimmy Garoppolo threw two interceptions -- again.

What the 140 characters didn’t tell you was how they happened, or why.

The first was a wounded duck that had very little chance of success, save for the fact that Justin Coleman completely impeded Chris Hogan’s ability to compete for the ball (read: defensive pass interference). Safety Jordan Richards poached the ball as it fluttered to earth and the media tent started chirping.

The second came two throws later. Garoppolo zipped a ball to the back hip/shoulder of Devin Lucien in the end zone. Lucien initially had it, but a diving Eric Rowe ripped it from his hands for Rowe’s second pick of Garoppolo in two days.

“Whenever you throw an interception, whether it’s your testing someone out and giving a guy a chance, you never want to throw an int in the first place,” said Garoppolo after practice today.

Those INTs came on the heels of two interceptions yesterday. The first -- snagged by Richards -- was almost certainly a ball Garoppolo would never have thrown in a real game. That's a point that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have hammered over and over in the last 17 years, that these day in late July and August, are a time for testing both yourself and your teammates.

“You always try to do the right thing in practice, but practice is also that time, especially in training camp,” noted Garoppolo, “ to try to give an opportunity to who you maybe wouldn’t in the regular season. It’s a time to gain trust in your teammates and give a guy an opportunity.”

Lucien had that opportunity today and had it wrestled away from him. Note taken and file saved. Maybe next time, Garoppolo -- or Brady, or Jacoby Brissett -- go a different direction. Or they hammer the point home.