FOXBORO, Mass. — One of the earliest images of Stephon Gilmore in a New England Patriots uniform is of him helplessly watching as Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill raced past him and safety Devin McCourty for a 75-yard touchdown.
That was 13 months ago. A lot has changed since then.
After suffering through numerous coverage breakdowns, miscommunications, a brief benching and a concussion in his first half-season as a Patriot, Gilmore eventually emerged as a lockdown cornerback and dominated during the 2017 postseason. The 28-year-old has continued that upward progression this season, quietly becoming one of the NFL’s most effective corners.
“He’s done a good job for us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “Way better than last year. Just overall — everything.”
Through five games, Gilmore has allowed 13 catches on 28 targets for 125 yards and two touchdowns — an average of 2.6 catches and 25 yards per game. He’s played nearly every defensive snap for New England (97.4 percent; only McCourty has played more) and is tied for the league lead with seven pass breakups, three of which came during last Thursday’s 38-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Gilmore also has one interception and one forced fumble to his credit and has yet to miss a tackle this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I mean, he’s a good player,” Belichick said. “He was a good player last year. I think his ability for us to utilize him in our system and for him to have maybe a better understanding for us as a group in the secondary — not just him, but the entire group — to function as one. It improved last year over the course of the year, and I think it’s improved this year, too. So, yeah, he’s done a great job for us.”
Despite losing three-year starter Malcolm Butler in free agency this past offseason, cornerback has been a position of great strength for the Patriots thus far. Gilmore and McCourty’s twin brother, Jason, both have been among PFF’s highest-graded corners this season, their cumulative game grades ranking sixth and fifth, respectively, among all players at their position.
Jason McCourty, whom the Patriots acquired in an offseason trade, replaced Eric Rowe early in the team’s Week 2 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and has started each of the last three games opposite Gilmore. In wins over the Miami Dolphins and Colts in Weeks 4 and 5, the duo allowed a combined 10 catches on 24 targets for 99 yards and no touchdowns with five pass breakups.
Gilmore downplayed the importance of PFF rankings (“They don’t know what type of coverage you’re in; they just know when the guy’s in front of you”) but said he’s been pleased with the way New England’s secondary has worked together this season.
“Just trying to make plays for our team,” the soft-spoken defensive back said. “Coach is putting us in the position to make plays, and we’re just going out there and trying to be successful. … As long as we’re making plays to help the team win, that’s what I care about. Everybody’s just trying to feed off each other. The safeties are playing. (Slot corner Jonathan) Jones is playing good, so we’re just trying to feed off each other.”
Gilmore, the McCourtys and the rest of the Patriots’ defense will face their toughest challenge yet this Sunday night when Patrick Mahomes and the undefeated Chiefs visit Gillette Stadium.
For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, go to ProFootballFocus.com.
Thumbnail photo via Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports Images
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