FOXBORO, Mass. — Stephon Gilmore and Alshon Jeffery have known each other for more than a decade. They were college teammates, classmates, roommates and friends.
This week, however, they’re none of those things. They’re a cornerback and a wide receiver, fighting for the same ball. Nothing more.
“Not this week,” Gilmore said when asked if he’ll have any communication with his fellow South Carolina Gamecock ahead of Sunday’s showdown between his New England Patriots and Jeffery’s Philadelphia Eagles.
“They’ve got a lot of great players, so it’s going to be a fun matchup with all their guys. That’s what it’s about.”
This isn’t the first time Gilmore and Jeffery have met on an NFL field, of course. They were on opposite sides of the second-highest-scoring Super Bowl in history — a 41-33 Eagles victory that closed out the 2017 season. Jeffery caught a touchdown pass over Eric Rowe early in that game but was largely silent after Gilmore took over coverage duties, going without a catch after halftime.
With the Eagles driving late in the second quarter, Gilmore broke up a pass intended for Jeffery in the end zone, then stepped over his old buddy while sending a few choice words his way — uncharacteristic behavior from the typically tight-lipped 29-year-old. Gilmore said he doesn’t feel an additional urge to talk trash when playing against a receiver he knows so well, but even the quietest cover man will chirp when the moment calls for it.
“It’s kind of the same,” Gilmore said. “I try to really focus on my technique and what I have to do. Whatever happens on the field, it happens during that moment, but I don’t go into the game that way.”
(Jeffery had the last laugh, anyway. The very next play was the Philly Special.)
Gilmore, who emerged as the best cornerback in football the following season, said he’s watched Super Bowl LII film to prepare for this week’s rematch, knowing the Eagles likely will try to exploit the same flaws they identified in 2017.
“It’s not a good feeling, but there’s nothing you can do about it (except) not let it happen again — not lose the game again,” he said. “That’s all I look at.”
New England’s defense has improved immensely since that Super Bowl defeat — it’s currently ranked first in points allowed, total defense and interceptions — and Gilmore’s star has continued to rise. A first-team All-Pro for the first time in 2018, he’s allowed more than 55 receiving yards just three times in the last two seasons and has yet to surrender a touchdown pass in nine games this season. At least one sportsbook has him pegged as the odds-on favorite to take home NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Jeffery, meanwhile, has slumped in 2019. The Eagles’ No. 1 receiver has just 34 receptions for 353 yards and three touchdowns with a career-low 10.4 yards-per-catch average in eight games, with 10 of those grabs coming in a Week 6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Jeffery also missed practice Wednesday with an ankle injury, putting his status for Sunday in doubt.
Still, at 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, Jeffery possesses impressive physical tools, as Gilmore was sure to note when offering his scouting report.
“He’s a big guy (with) a big catch radius,” he said. “He can make a lot of big plays. He’s a good receiver.”