Ahead of the NFL trade deadline in early November there was some speculation whether or not the New England Patriots might be willing to move on from cornerback Stephon Gilmore. There were signs that a transaction might indeed be coming: from the fact that he was now on the wrong side of 30, to some offseason rumblings about his contract, to him putting his house on the market shortly before the deadline, to a mysterious knee injury.
The most important factor for those advocating for a trade was Gilmore’s performance: he was no longer playing on the same high level he did a year ago, when he was voted the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. With the Patriots being an organization famous for rather moving on a year too early than a year too late, that had to account for something. Right?
Fast forward one month and the situation looks a lot different. Not only did the Patriots not trade Gilmore — their only pre-deadline move was acquiring wide receiver Isaiah Ford, who has since been released — the star defender also bounced back nicely from his knee injury and has since played on as high a level as any defensive back in football.
That’s right, folks, Stephon Gilmore is still tremendous.
Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers was further confirmation of that, not just because Gilmore started it and thus played a big role in the Patriots’ 45-0 victory. His individual performance on a play-by-play basis was also on an impressively high level. While every single one of his snaps would show that, three in particular stand out.
3-4-NE 44 (4:19) (Shotgun) J.Herbert pass short right to K.Allen to NE 41 for 3 yards (S.Gilmore).
After going up against the Arizona Cardinals’ DeAndre Hopkins in Week 12, Gilmore was again asked to match up with one of the best wide receivers in the league in Week 13: Keenan Allen, who entered the game with 85 receptions for 875 yards and seven touchdowns on his résumé. New England’s CB1, however, was ready for the battle and just like against Hopkins ultimately emerged as the victor.
Allen did catch five passes for 48 yards versus the Patriots, but he a) was unable to make any game-changing plays, and b) caught only two for 27 against Gilmore. While the second of his receptions — a 24-yarder late in the second quarter — came off a good route versus a defense focused on taking away the home run play, the first gained only three yards on a 3rd-and-4 in the opening quarter.
The play looked like this:
As can be seen, Gilmore (#24) was aligned over Allen (#13) in the offensive left-side slot. The veteran defender remained calm after the snap, waiting for his assignment to make a move before committing one way or another. The Chargers’ leading receiver decided to go on a shallow crosser just short of the sticks with the potential to gain the necessary yardage after a possible catch. Gilmore, however, made sure that that did not happen.
He stayed in Allen’s pocket throughout the route, knowing that a short catch was fine as long as it did not result in a new set of downs.
Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert (#10) indeed hit his favorite target on the crosser but with Gilmore right behind him Allen had to chance to break free for the first down. He was tackled almost immediately, with New England’s defender playing some tremendous technique to make a play on the ball-carrier at just the right time without interfering with the catch.
Yes, the play went into the books as one given up by Gilmore. But given the situation, the down was still a victorious one from his perspective: he showed tremendous poise following the snap, and stuck with one of the league’s most talented pass catchers throughout his route before executing a perfect tackle. You cannot play this any better.
2-9-LAC 21 (14:26) (Shotgun) J.Herbert pass incomplete short right to M.Williams (S.Gilmore).
While Gilmore faced off against Allen on a large portion of his coverage snaps, the Patriots also liked to use him on some of the Chargers’ other receivers. One of them was Mike Williams, who himself had caught 32 passes for 529 yards and four touchdowns heading into Week 13. Needless to say that Los Angeles’ number two wideout is a player capable of putting pressure on opposing defensive backs himself.
Gilmore is not your average defensive back, however, and Williams had to find out when matched up against him in the second quarter:
The Chargers approached the second down play in an 11-personnel 2x2 formation with Williams (#81) split out wide to the right isolated against Gilmore. The defense, meanwhile, was in a one-deep coverage shell playing man-to-man across the board.
At the snap, Gilmore again waited on the receiver to make the first move before opening his hips upon Williams’ inside release. Once again, however, the Patriots’ defender was quick to get into a position to play his opponent tightly throughout his route and get his hands onto him before his cut. Williams moved towards the middle of the field on a post, but Gilmore again did not give up any ground to stick with him.
As a result of that, the veteran corner was able to out-leverage Williams for the ball when it arrived: Gilmore got inside position — once again playing it cleanly not to risk a penalty — to knock the ball away for an incompletion. His quickness and ability to go into a second gear upon closing in on the ball allowed him to make this play, and paired with a tremendous technique left Williams without a reception despite the ball being placed well.
On a side note, J.C. Jackson’s footwork at the bottom of the screen is also impressive.
1-10-NE 36 (9:45) (Shotgun) J.Herbert pass incomplete deep middle to J.Guyton.
The game was very much out of reach for the Chargers in the fourth quarter and with the Patriots already up 38-0 at that point. Still, Justin Herbert and his offense were actively challenging New England’s secondary by continuously throwing the football. Every now and then, that also meant another passing target for Gilmore — he ended the game with five throws coming his way, only the two to Allen mentioned above being completed.
One of the others, meanwhile, was a throw intended for second-year man Jalen Guyton. While not as big a name as Allen or Williams, Guyton has proven himself a productive pass catcher as well, with his 18.4 yards per reception entering the game leading the Chargers’ regular receivers. A viable deep threat, Herbert also targeted him on three deep throws versus the Patriots. One was completed for 24 yards, the others sailed incomplete.
On one of those incompletions, Gilmore was in coverage. While the play itself was rather nondescript, it still showed the cornerback’s tremendous flexibility and recovery skills:
Gilmore invited Guyton (#15) to the outside after the snap, granting him a free release. He was not necessarily paying too much attention to the young wideout, however, and instead kept playing with his head turned towards the backfield. His outstanding footwork out of his stance allowed him to do both that and keep his assigned receiver pinned to the sideline.
Guyton did eventually get behind the All-Pro, but even then he did not flinch. As soon as he saw the ball being released down the field, Gilmore picked up the speed to close in and go for the ball rather the receiver’s arm or body to risk an interference flag being thrown. All along, he made it look preposterously easy — from getting into his drop-back with a spin move to calmly closing in on Guyton on the top of the route.
While that play will not make any highlight reels anytime soon, it illustrates just how well Gilmore is playing from a technical perspective and how effortless he makes it look.
All this leads to one easy conclusion: Gilmore is still his elite self. This is obviously good news for a team trying to make a late push towards the playoffs.