Mike Tomlin sees a worth successor to Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson in the Patriots’ secondary. And it isn’t the player widely viewed as New England’s current No. 1 cornerback.
Ahead of the Patriots’ trip to Pittsburgh this Sunday, the Steelers head coach likened Jonathan Jones’ coverage against Tyreek Hill in New England’s Week 1 loss to the Miami Dolphins to the lockdown abilities Gilmore and Jackson possessed during their respective stints in Foxboro.
“They play a really, really good matchup game,” Tomlin told reporters in his Wednesday news conference. “An example: I’m watching their tape, and they’ve always got a lockdown-match corner over the years. In recent years, it’s been Gilmore, and then it was Jackson, and now it’s Jones. I think that’s what you get when you get continuity in a program, if you will.
“The names may change, but the roles and how they go about business, their mode of operation very much remains the same. I turned on the tape from last week and I see 31 (Jones) tracking 10 from Miami (Hill) very much in ways like the No. 1 corners from New England usually do.”
Hill caught eight passes for 94 yards in his Dolphins debut, but Jones did an admirable job against the former Kansas City speedster, allowing four catches on six targets for 50 yards, per Pro Football Focus. Primarily a slot defender since joining the Patriots in 2016, the 28-year-old Jones now is playing a new role as one of New England’s starting outside cornerbacks, replacing the departed Jackson.
Fellow starter Jalen Mills was the Patriots’ top cover man during training camp and the preseason, and his and Jones’ responsibilities this season likely will vary based on matchups. Hill, for example, is known for his top-end speed, so it made sense for the Patriots to assign him to Jones, one of their fastest defenders. Even still, Jones did not shadow Hill on every snap in the Patriots’ 20-7 loss at Hard Rock Stadium.
Despite Tomlin’s lofty praise, the Patriots are operating without an obvious Pro Bowl-caliber corner for the first time since 2012, when they acquired Aqib Talib in a midseason trade. (Darrelle Revis succeeded Talib in 2014, with Malcolm Butler, Gilmore and Jackson following him.) The Steelers coach wasn’t the first to spotlight Jones, however, who’s also received plaudits from several of his Patriots teammates and coaches.
“It was great to have Jon Jones back (from the shoulder injury that ended his 2021 season),” linebackers coach and defensive play-caller Steve Belichick said this week. “I’ve loved that kid since the day he walked in the building. His versatility, his toughness, his intelligence, how hard he plays — I can’t say enough good things about Jon Jones. Having him back on the field just helps everybody out on defense. I thought he played well.”
Belichick and veteran safety Devin McCourty both have said Jones doesn’t receive enough credit for his play, with the former once calling him the Patriots’ most underrated player.
Jones, Mills and the rest of the Patriots’ defense faces a favorable matchup this week against the Steelers’ Mitch Trubisky-led offense, which scored just one touchdown and went three-and-out five times in a Week 1 overtime win over Cincinnati. Pittsburgh’s defense was relentless in that game, however (five takeaways, seven sacks). With the Patriots scuffling offensively and quarterback Mac Jones banged up, they’ll likely need a strong defensive showing to avoid their first 0-2 start since the 2001 season.