The New England Patriots’ defensive success in 2019 was largely built on the team’s ability to shut opposing passing attacks down on a week-to-week basis. No defense in football gave up a lower completion percentage, allowed fewer touchdowns, had more interceptions, or registered a better passer rating than the Patriots’.
But while the unit’s overall performance is what matters in the grand scheme of things, the proper context surrounding it cannot be ignored either. New England’s aggressive man-to-man coverage scheme did succeed because of the players’ ability to perform within it — from veteran, starting-caliber talent such as Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Jonathan Jones to the two best coverage defenders in the NFL last year.
That’s right, no other players were better in coverage in 2019 than Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson.
While that claim itself will most definitely be disputed if only based on the fact that Jackson flew under the radar outside of New England, its basis is rooted in statistics: the league’s Next Gen Stats recently broke down cornerback play based on five metrics — passer rating allowed, catch rate allowed below expectation, tight window percentage, target rate, average separation yards — to determine who were the best of the best among the league’s defensive backs last year. Turns out that Gilmore and Jackson took the top two spots.
The excerpt about New England’s top cornerback, via NFL.com’s Nick Shook, reads as follows:
Gilmore cemented himself as the league’s best corner in 2019 with numbers like the ones listed above, which don’t even include his six interceptions. He was the only player who faced 85 or more targets and didn’t give up a touchdown. He allowed the lowest passer rating as the nearest defender in coverage among cornerbacks in 2019 (teammate J.C. Jackson is listed as a defensive back). His catch rate allowed below expectation (-11.8) was also the lowest among cornerbacks with a minimum of 300 coverage snaps. No one was better in coverage than Gilmore in 2019.
Gilmore’s numbers were impressive. Not only did he surrender a passer rating of 38.0, according to the Next Gen calculations, he also allowed a catch rate of 11.8 percent below expectation while scoring well in the other metrics as well: his tight window percentage of 27.1 percent, target rate of 19.5 percent, and average separation yards of 2.7 all stand out. Gilmore ranking as the top coverage defender in the NFL in 2019 does therefore not come as too big a surprise.
This also is true based on the accolades he received after the season: He was voted the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, and named to both the first All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl. Furthermore, he routinely took on number one wide receivers and was able to eliminate them from the equation. Gilmore was the best defensive back in football last year, and a key factor in New England’s defense leading the league in scoring during the regular season.
For as impressive as the 29-year-old played — especially considering the opposition he faced — Jackson’s achievements should not go unnoticed either, however:
[...] Jackson was still a revelation for the Patriots despite starting just six games, allowing the lowest passer rating as the nearest defender in coverage among all defenders who qualified for this exercise, and the second-lowest completion percentage allowed. Jackson was excellent, especially in press coverage, allowing a passer rating of just 8.1 in such situations and recording all five of his interceptions while in press. No one was better in those two categories while in press. Add in his perfect passer rating allowed of 0.0 as the nearest defender on deep targets and you’ll see the resume of a defensive back poised to explode onto the scene as a soon-to-be-household name in the same defense that also features Gilmore, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Jackson did enjoy the luxury of not having to take on opposing number one wide receivers, but he still established himself as a bona fide number two on the perimeter in 2019. The numbers reflect this: his passer rating of 21.8 was actually lower than Gilmore’s (and that of any other qualifying defender), while his catch rate of 10.1 percent below expectation is no less impressive. Add a tight window percentage of 27.6 percent, a target rate of 15.6 percent and an average separation of 2.2 yards and you get an outstanding coverage player.
Heading into the 2020 season, Jackson is again projected to play a prominent role in New England’s defensive backfield. With Gilmore as the team’s clear number one cornerback, the third-year man, who went undrafted in 2018, will compete with Jason McCourty and Joejuan Williams for the number two role and starting gig opposite the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. McCourty may have the experience and Williams the draft pedigree, but Jackson’s development over the last two seasons could give him an edge.
Either way, the statistics confirm what Patriots fans have witnessed throughout the entire 2019 season: the team’s secondary is a game-changing unit, and both Gilmore and Jackson were big-time contributors to its effectiveness.