Stephon Gilmore’s struggles in the first month of the season introduced the ex-Bills corner to life in the Boston sports market.
When you play poorly in Boston and make no mistake about it Gilmore played poorly, you hear about it, and things can quickly turn on you, especially when you signed a $65 million contract in the offseason.
The biggest issue for Gilmore in the first month had to do with communication and understanding of a new defensive scheme. When he understood his coverage responsibilities he was solid, maybe not $65 million solid, but about what you’d expect given his tape in Buffalo.
Against the Bucs, Gilmore and the rest of the Patriots’ secondary cleaned up the coverage busts, and we got to see the new #24 in New England play the way you’d expect given his salary.
The game-plan, in terms of coverages, for the Patriots was simple: Gilmore on Mike Evans and Malcolm Butler on DeSean Jackson. Gilmore covered Mike Evans on 93.8% of Evans' routes, while Butler shadowed Jackson 90.2% of the time, according to Pro Football Focus*.
For Gilmore, he held Evans to just five catches for 49 yards, with three of those catches and 26 of the yards coming while Gilmore was in coverage.
Below, I’ll show you how the Patriots got Gilmore back on track, allowing him to play his style on the outside, and his commitment to playing more fundamentally sound football.
There’s no doubt that Gilmore looks most comfortable in man coverage.
The Pats play all sorts of different coverages on the back end, but most of those schemes operate on man-to-man principles, which is probably why they had so much interest in Gilmore in the first place.
Against the Bucs, and Mike Evans, Gilmore was spectacular in man coverage, as all three of the catches he allowed to Evans were in zone concepts, and it got to the point where Jameis Winston stopped looking his way unless it was zone or off-coverage.
On to the plays.
Let’s start with the best play of the day for Gilmore when he was targeted.
He’s on an island with Evans with safety help underneath, but Duron Harmon playing centerfield shades towards Jackson on the bottom of the screen. Gilmore looks like he’s beat, but he’s actually in a good trail position running stride for stride with Evans.
The play breaks down when Winston leaves the pocket, and Gilmore is able to stick with Evans cutting across the field. Turning this into a difficult reception on third down.
Whenever you see Gilmore playing press man coverage he consistently wins the matchup.
Here, Winston’s first read is to the left side of the field, but Gilmore's ability to cover Evans on the outside with just the single-high safety deep allows the Patriots to have a safety play closer to the line of scrimmage as a robber. That forces Winston to come back to tight end Cameron Brate in the middle of the field late in the down, and the pass ends up falling incomplete.
This play perfectly illustrates Gilmore’s obvious strength in bump and run man coverage, and how valuable that can be for the Patriots defense.
The Patriots liked the matchup with Gilmore on Evans so much that he traveled with Evans into the slot as well. This was especially true on third down, as Gilmore was almost exclusively matched up against Evans in coverage in those situations.
On this play, what really stands out is how Gilmore uses his press and leverage to force Evans to his help in the middle of the field. Gilmore knows that he has help in the middle of the field with Devin McCourty.
He gets his hands on him early, flips his hips inside, and forces Evans to run himself to his help.
Gilmore wasn’t as dominate in zone coverage in this one, but you see how the coverage calls fit his playing style, and how he has corrected some of the issues that plagued him early on in the season.
The Patriots love to play cover-3 in the secondary outside of the red zone when there’s a lot of space to cover.
The technique operates, on the outside anyway, with man principles, but instead of pattern matching, you’ll see the corner turn and run up the sideline preventing a deep completion.
Gilmore has been beaten by quick moves at the top of routes while playing this technique so far this season, especially on deep out routes as Mike Evans runs here. Gilmore reacts to it well on this play, but it just a step too late from preventing the reception.
The Patriots will take that effort, though. As they count on the offenses inability to string multiple passing plays with that kind of timing and execution together in one drive.
Where we really saw Gilmore improve in this game was how he handled playing in cover-2.
In past weeks, Gilmore has struggled with carrying and passing receivers off to the safety behind him and hasn’t done enough to force an inside release by the receiver. As a corner in cover-2, you have to do what you can to make things easier for the safety playing your side of the field.
That usually means getting your hands on the receiver in your zone early and forcing him inside creating a shorter path to the ball if need be for the safety.
Watch how Gilmore drops on the two plays above, carrying his man all the way through his zone, and now watch how he defended Tyreek Hill on the long touchdown in Week 1.
In terms of communication, Gilmore has struggled the most, as has the entire Patriots secondary, with bunch formations.
The Bucs did the Patriots a favor in this one, as their offensive scheme doesn’t have as many bunch formations, or pre-snap motions, two things that really haunted the Patriots in the first month.
However, when the Bucs did bunch or stack receivers, the Patriots solved their communications problems by taking Gilmore out of the equation completely and lining him up on the weak side of the field away from the bunch set.
It also helps that the Bucs tend to line Mike Evans up as an “X” receiver on most plays, which means he too is typically on the weak side of the formation.
Here, you see this in action, although Winston has an open receiver in the flat if the protection holds, Winston looks over the middle to Evans and Cameron Brate, but Gilmore, Patrick Chung, and Devin McCourty took those two options away.
Although the Patriots still didn't do great covering bunch formations at least there weren't any huge coverage busts like we saw in the first four games of the season.
Any statistician will tell you that operating with a small sample size is a risky endeavor.
Judging Gilmore’s performance based on four games with the Patriots was difficult, as is judging him based on this Bucs game alone. However, what we saw against Tampa Bay was the outline for how we thought the Patriots would use Gilmore heading into the season.
Gilmore is the best cornerback the Patriots have had since Aqib Talib or Darrelle Revis. I mean no disrespect to Malcolm Butler with that statement, but in terms of athletic ability and talent, Gilmore has him beat. Plus, he also has ideal size for an outside cornerback.
There’s also something to be said for the style of offense that the Buccaneers play, which is extremely different from the Chiefs, Texans, and Panthers. Jameis Winston is not a running quarterback. He can scramble to extend plays in the pocket, but he’s not going to burn you with his legs like Deshaun Watson or Cam Newton.
Winston held the Bucs back in this game. He has been an inaccurate quarterback at times throughout his career, but missed a lot of throws last Thursday night, and didn't see the field particularly well either.
The Bucs also don’t operate an offense like you see in Kansas City. They run a vertical system that relies heavily on isolation routes, timing, and receivers such as Mike Evans winning 50/50 battles at the catch point against corners.
The offense as a whole lacks creativity and could do a lot more to produce easier throws for Winston, and put receivers in more favorable situations to run after the catch.
Having said that, Stephon Gilmore and the Patriots' secondary found their identity on Thursday night.