How Can Patriots’ Defense Fill Potential Void Left By Stephon Gilmore?

How does the Patriots' secondary match up with Denver's receiving corps?

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The strength of the Patriots’ roster could be tested Sunday if Stephon Gilmore isn’t activated off of COVID/reserve before New England’s Week 5 matchup with the Denver Broncos.

Fortunately, it should be a pretty straightforward exam for the Patriots’ secondary as they face Brett Rypien or a banged-up Drew Lock at quarterback on Sunday.

“Lock is a very talented guy,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday on WEEI. “And then (Jeff) Driskel, (Blake) Bortles and Rypien have played, and they’ve certainly showed the ability to be an NFL quarterback.”

Well, they’re in the league.

And to be fair, the Patriots are in no better shape at QB if Cam Newton can’t come off of the COVID list with Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham as the team’s top two options.

Gilmore would have to pass two consecutive COVID-19 tests in order to play Sunday. I won’t pretend to know enough about viral loads to say whether or not that’s possible, but there’s certainly a chance Gilmore won’t play Sunday. And his potential replacements are all very viable NFL starters.

If Gilmore remains on the COVID list, then expect JC Jackson and Jason McCourty to man the two outside cornerback spots and Jonathan Jones to continue playing in the slot, barring any other positive tests. Joejuan Williams, who has played a specialty role covering tight ends this season, could play more snaps. Special-teamer Justin Bethel and undrafted rookie Myles Bryant fill out the Patriots’ active-roster cornerback depth chart. Mike Jackson and D’Angelo Ross, both of whom “showed the ability to be an NFL” cornerback during training camp, are on the practice squad.

If Broncos top wide receiver Courtland Sutton was healthy, then losing Gilmore would be a bigger deal, but he’s on injured reserve with a torn ACL. Rookie wide receiver K.J. Hamler also won’t play because of an injury, and tight end Noah Fant is very doubtful to be active.

So, the Broncos’ top receivers are rookie Jerry Jeudy and longtime Denver fill-in starters Tim Patrick and DaeSean Hamilton.

Jeudy, a 2020 first-round pick, is a tricky cover since he mostly lines up in the slot at 6-foot-1, 193 pounds. Jones, who does better against smaller or faster slot receivers, isn’t an ideal defender to cover Jeudy. If Gilmore is active, perhaps he would be an option to follow Jeudy into the slot.

But if Gilmore can’t play, then either Jones or Williams will likely defend Jeudy. Jones has let up 19 catches on 29 targets for 202 yards with two touchdowns and two pass breakups this season, per PFF. Williams has let up two catches on five targets for 54 yards with two holding penalties and a pass breakup.

Patrick has been solid this season with 16 catches for 209 yards with two touchdowns, and he’s coming off of a six-catch, 113-yard, one-touchdown performance against the New York Jets. But Jackson, McCourty or Williams can probably handle him well enough in the X-receiver role. Jackson has let up 10 catches on 13 targets for 102 yards with a touchdown, interception and two pass breakups. McCourty has let up four catches on seven targets for 49 yards with two touchdowns. Both touchdowns and 42 of those 49 yards came in Week 2 against the Seahawks. Otherwise, McCourty has been stingy.

Hamilton has just three catches for 32 yards this season. Backup tight ends Jake Butt and Nick Vannett have combined for four catches for 6 yards.

All of this is a long way of saying that if there’s a week to be without Gilmore, it’s probably this one. The Patriots have good depth at cornerback, and they can weather the storm without their best player.

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