The New England Patriots and Stephon Gilmore have a long and successful history. Between 2017 and 2020, he helped the organization win a Super Bowl, was named first-team All-Pro twice, and at one point earned the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
This Sunday, however, the Patriots’ hope is that Gilmore will not be on the same form he showcased in their four seasons together. They do know they should not count on a big drop-off, though.
While the 33-year-old might not be the player he was a few years ago, the team has sent a pretty clear message heading into its matchup with him and the Dallas Cowboys: don’t underestimate Stephon Gilmore.
“Steph’s had a great career,” said head coach Bill Belichick this week. “Steph looks kind of how he’s always looked — long, disruptive, and really good ball skills. You’ve got to be careful throwing the ball around him. He’ll catch it.”
In his fours seasons with the Patriots, Gilmore made a habit out of making the big play. Whether it was registering a crucial pass breakup in the 2017 AFC title game, or making the game-clinching interception in Super Bowl LIII one year later, he has always had a knack for finding the football.
Even after New England, where he registered a combined 13 interceptions, he has been able to make big plays: in the 27 games since his departure, he has picked off five passes and broken up 12 others.
“He’s a great corner. He’s still playing for a reason,” said Patriots wide receiver coach Troy Brown. “Still got great skills. Still got great instincts. Obviously, he hasn’t declined much at all if any. He’s still a threat back there for their defense.”
Coming off an injury-shortened 2020 season, the Patriots put Gilmore on the trade block. He was eventually sent to the Carolina Panthers in October 2021, and later spent one season in Indianapolis before getting traded again earlier this offseason.
Since his arrival in Dallas, Gilmore has been a steady presence: he started all three games as an outside cornerback, leading the team with 161 defensive snaps. Along the way, he registered 12 tackles and an interception.
“Steph is just incredible. He’s a great player, he’s so smart,” said tight end Hunter Henry. “Obviously, his career speaks for itself. I think just the production and everything that he’s done, and just what he brought here, too — just a special player, special person. Definitely a guy we have to be ready to go against because he’s seen this scheme, this offense, just different guys over the years, and he’s really, really smart. He studies well, he knows different tendencies, different things. So, you have to definitely keep your eye on him.”
The Cowboys have only occasionally moved Gilmore around, playing him as their defensive left-side perimeter cornerback on almost 81 percent of his snaps. As a result, it seems unlikely that Henry — a traditional in-line tight end and slot option — will see a lot of one-on-one matchups against Gilmore this week.
The same cannot be said for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who the Patriots have moved around the formation in his first three games with the team. Him going up against Gilmore is definitely in the cards this week, and a matchup he has some experience with.
“The guy is a veteran, super smart. Played a lot of ball, played a lot of ball here,” he told reporters on Thursday. “I’ve gone against him in the past. I would say he’s probably one of the best corners that I’ve gone against because he’s just — I’ve gone against him multiple times — very sudden, doesn’t say a whole lot, and just plays smart football.
“Just a guy that doesn’t say a whole lot and just plays ball. The game that he plays is very, very well respected across the league.”
Smith-Schuster has some familiarity with Gilmore, as have multiple other players on the roster — either because they still played with him, or because they went up against him before. During his 2021 season with the Panther, after all, he faced his ex-club and promptly registered a pick off of quarterback Mac Jones.
Other, such as wide receivers coach Ross Douglas, worked closely with Gilmore in the past.
“When we talk about Stephon Gilmore, we talk about one of the best corners in the past five to 10 years,” said Douglas this week. “When I first got here in 2021, I was in defensive quality control and spent a lot of time with Gilmore. He was injured at the time, so me and him watched some film together. Me and him had a lot of conversations just about DB play.
“Knowing how he studies the game and how in-tune he is with things from the wide receiver position, whether it’s splits, the type of routes they run, he’s going to be in tune with everything that we do. It’s going to be on us. He’s definitely a challenge for us. Looking forward to competing against him on Sunday.”