There was no doubt about which member of the New England Patriots defense would draw the difficult assignment of guarding Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in Week 12: cornerback Stephon Gilmore was the man for the job. The NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year even confirmed this during a radio appearance last week when he pointed out that “everybody knows” he would be asked to cover Hopkins.
The battle was shaping up to be a heavyweight affair between one of the best cover corners in football and one of the premier pass catchers in the business.
Heading into their respective teams’ matchup, after all, both Hopkins and Gilmore had played at a high level so far this season. While the Cardinals’ number one receiver caught 72 passes for 912 yards and four touchdowns, Gilmore’s stat-line read 14 receptions on 26 targets for 227 yards with one touchdown and interception each. They were both performing on an All-Pro level yet again, setting the stage for a must-see bout.
When it was said and done, Stephon Gilmore emerged as the winner.
Not only did the Patriots beat the Cardinals 20-17 thanks to a last-second field goal by Nick Folk, New England’s star defender also was able to limit Hopkins’ impact on the game.
All in all, quarterback Kyler Murray threw six passes with Hopkins as the target — a seventh, the tip-drill interception by safety Adrian Phillips in the third quarter, was either intended for Hopkins or Andy Isabella — and the 28-year-old came away with five catches for 55 yards. However, not all of that output came with Gilmore aligned on the other side of the line of scrimmage or as the player responsible for Hopkins.
In fact, Murray went after the matchup just four times not counting a play offset by interference penalties committed by both players and a holding call against Gilmore. The numbers were rather mediocre from the Cardinals’ perspective: three of the throws were completed for a combined 26 yards. Gilmore surrendered a pair of 9-yard catches in the first and second quarters, and later gave up an 8-yarder to start the fourth. He also blanketed Hopkins on an incompletion.
Hopkins’ longest gains of the day, meanwhile, both came against other defenders. He caught a 16-yard pass in the first quarter versus a zone look, and later added a 13-yarder in the second when matched up against linebacker Terez Hall.
“I think you have to mix it up on this offense, this quarterback, and certainly on Hopkins,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick when asked after the game about his defense limiting Hopkins’ output. “You sit in the same thing against him all day, I’m not really sure how good that is. We played some man; we played some zone; we blitzed them; we pressed them; we played off; we rolled into them. I think you just have to mix it up on them.
“One thing that Steph did was compete well, force some throws — they hit a couple, they didn’t hit all of them — and tackle well after the catch. We didn’t have any explosive plays there. Hopkins is as good a receiver as we’re going to face all year.”
Hopkins ended up as the Cardinals’ leading pass catcher on the day, but he did not perform on his usual high level while also failing to make any game-changing plays — in large part because of the coverages thrown at the receiver and his quarterback, but also due to Gilmore repeatedly giving him limited space to work with. The former first-round draft pick was therefore held well below his season-long averages entering the contest of 7.2 catches and 91.2 receiving yards per game.
This is nothing new for New England, though. Going back to the 2017 season — Gilmore’s first as a Patriot — the team has held Hopkins to a combined 25 receptions on 32 targets for 273 yards in four matchups. Along the way, the Patriots used a variety of coverage looks but also employed Gilmore one-on-one versus Hopkins on a regular basis.
Hearing him praise the talented wideout after the game was therefore no surprise given the familiarity between the two.
“You put the ball anywhere near him, he’s able to catch the ball. He’s a great receiver. Two great players competing against each other. We both like to play physical and that’s why you play the game, to play against the best. I enjoy those moments,” Gilmore said of the matchup during his postgame media conference call.
“I respect every receiver, but in between those lines, I don’t really have any friends. I just try to compete. It’s like a boxing match out there. That’s how I look at it, it’s competing. I enjoy those moments, I enjoy covering the best guy, whether he’s in the slot or outside. I love it because that’s where the team is trying to go with the football, so it drives me.”
The Cardinals went after Gilmore only a handful of times on Sunday, which speaks for his ability to lock down his side of the field even when asked to go against arguably the best receiver in the league.