In 2018, Stephon Gilmore played an outstanding season that ended with him earning his first Super Bowl ring as well as first-team All-Pro honors. And while his 2019 campaign is far from over, it is no stretch of the imagination to say that Gilmore might be even better this year. In fact, he is so good that All-Pro status is possibly no longer sufficient to adequately assess his performance: Gilmore should have a realistic case to become the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals serves as further proof of that. While, yes, the team is among the worst in football and headed towards the first overall pick in next year’s draft, Gilmore still continued to do what he has been doing all year long: he locked down whoever his assignment was, made impact plays that helped swing the game in the New England Patriots’ favor along the way, and was the best defender and possibly player on either side.
The final stat-line from the game shows just how good he was again: while he did allow two catches for 24 yards, the 29-year-old also registered a pair of pass-breakups and most importantly two interceptions. The first of those picks came in the third quarter and was a tremendous effort that saw the cornerback make a contested one-handed catch to end the Bengals’ opening possession of the half and set up a Patriots touchdown.
The second interception might not have been as difficult to complete as the first, but it certainly was impressive nevertheless: Gilmore undercut a pass from Andy Dalton intended for wide receiver Tyler Boyd, caught the football in stride and returned the pass attempt 65 yards for a touchdown — his second pick-six of the season and a play that put New England up by 17 points in what had been a rather close game up until this point.
“The first one, [Tyler Boyd] got me off the line a little bit but I knew the route from film study,” Gilmore told NFL Network after the game about the first of his takeaways. “I undercut the route and was able to make a good play on the ball. [...] Second one, the pressure got there. I knew once he hesitated off the ball he ran an option-route so I was able to break and beat him to the pass.”
“I think that was one of our better plays just because as a defense we had a call — they came out in empty [formation] — and everybody knew exactly what we were going to,” fellow defensive back Devin McCourty said about Gilmore’s pick-six during his postgame press conference. “Everybody knew the ball was going to come out, Dalton brought the tight end back end, we realized the check, [Patrick Chung], myself, everybody being on the same page.”
“And when we play like that, everybody is going to benefit from it. I think it was going to go to Boyd and Steph made a great break on the ball,” continued McCourty. “That was a good play, but the one-handed catch was a lot better play. It was a great coverage, outside throw, just turn back and catch it with one hand. The guy’s been on point every week we’ve lined up and played a game. I thought today, [he showed] leadership by his play: each time they came to him just being ready, making a play. We needed it today.”
Gilmore’s two interceptions directly contributed to 14 of the Patriots’ 34 points against Cincinnati, and forced New England’s opponent into a more aggressive approach: after successfully running the football early on in the game, the Bengals were forced to take to the air more often while trying to climb out of their 17-point hole in the third period. They could not, and instead threw two more interceptions — both to cornerback J.C. Jackson.
Needless to say, therefore, that Gilmore played an enormous role in the Patriots’ victory and overall defensive success so far this season. While he alone is not responsible for New England ranking first in points allowed, having him as a true shutdown corner certainly makes things easier across the board — further showing just how valuable he is to the entire operation. Of course, this all would also not be possible without him putting the necessary work in.
“I just work each and every practice, and I got great players around me, which allows me to play how I want to play. I’m just playing free and I got a great coach that puts me in a position to make plays. I’m just having fun and trying to make plays with my teammates,” said Gilmore after the game against the Bengals — one that once again showed why he should at least be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.