CINCINNATI — It’s been 10 years since a cornerback earned Defensive Player of the Year honors in the NFL.
That drought should end this season. No 2019 defender is more deserving than Stephon Gilmore.
The New England Patriots’ star corner delivered another dazzling performance Sunday in Cincinnati, silencing Bengals top wideout Tyler Boyd and registering two interceptions — including a 64-yard pick-six — and two pass breakups in a 34-13 Patriots victory at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I kept saying on the sideline, does (Bengals cornerback Andy Dalton) know?” safety Duron Harmon said after the game. “(That’s) an All-Pro corner, best corner in the league. I guess not. That’s what happens.”
Gilmore said he knew which route Boyd was going to run on each of his two interceptions, which came on back-to-back Bengals possessions early in the second half. On the first, he outmuscled the wideout, caught Dalton’s pass with one hand and held on while being body-slammed to the turf.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 15, 2019
The second had a much lower degree of difficulty. Dalton lolly-popped a pass to Boyd in the flat, and Gilmore, anticipating the 5-yard out, undercut the route and sprinted untouched into the end zone.
Best in the business 💯 https://t.co/KDhNFM17b1
— The Gilly Lock (@BumpNrunGilm0re) December 15, 2019
“The first one, I knew the route,” Gilmore explained. “He kind of got me off the line, but I knew the route, so I undercut it and made a good play. And the second one, I kind of knew the route, too, and was able to jump it. We had good coverage, so I knew the pressure was going to get there, and I was able to make a play.”
He added: “As soon as he threw it, I knew I was going. I just had to catch it.”
How did he know? Film study. He’d seen the Bengals run these exact same route combinations before.
“They’ve got to switch the play up, because — I wouldn’t say it was easy, but I knew the route,” said Gilmore, later adding he “should have had four” picks in the game.
Gilmore, who also took a Ryan Fitzpatrick interception to the house in Week 2, is the first Patriots player to record multiple pick-sixes in a single season since Tedy Bruschi in 2003. His six interceptions lead the NFL, and he entered Sunday with a passer rating against of 42.7, according to Pro Football Focus — second-best among all corners behind teammate J.C. Jackson, who also hauled in two interceptions in the win.
That number will drop even lower after Gilmore surrendered just two catches on six targets for 24 yards against Boyd, who entered Week 15 ranked 12th in the NFL in receptions.
Gilmore hasn’t allowed more than 50 receiving yards in a game since Week 5 and has allowed more than 51 just once all season. He has yet to surrender a touchdown pass. In the last nine games, he’s let up 20 catches and defended 14 passes (five interceptions, nine PBUs), per PFF’s tracking data.
“The guy’s been on point every week we’ve lined up and played a game,” safety Devin McCourty said.
Added Harmon: “He’s a phenomenal football player. What he’s able to do on the field is rare. Being able to play that type of man coverage, being able to read the quarterback and intercept the ball, it’s rare skills, and it has to be why he’s the best corner in the league.”
The last cornerback to win Defensive Player of the Year was Charles Woodson in 2009. The last before him was Deion Sanders in 1994. Since 1981, just three corners have received that honor: Woodson, Sanders and Rod Woodson in 1993.
Given the way award voters typically favor front-seven players, it would take a remarkably special season from a defensive back to alter that mindset. That’s exactly what Gilmore is having.
“I think his play on the field is unmatched,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “As a fan of the game, as a teammate, you love watching the guy do what he does, and he plays it at elite level.”
Thumbnail photo via David Kohl/USA TODAY Sports Images