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Why Stephon Gilmore is key to improved Patriots pass defense

Nov 19, 2017; Mexico City, MEX; New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (24) and free safety Devin McCourty (32) reacts after a play during the game against the Oakland Raiders at Estadio Azteca. New England won 33-8. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

During the first month of the season, there was not a bigger lightning rod for criticism than Stephon Gilmore. A good but not great player in Buffalo, Gilmore surprisingly signed a five-year, $65 million contract to join forces with the New England Patriots and was expected to form the league’s top cornerback tandem with fellow Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler.

The early results were not good.

With Gilmore struggling to pick up the nuances of New England’s defense, the entire secondary played disjointed football, resulting in shockingly bad performances against Kansas City, Houston and Carolina. Through four games, the Patriots allowed 32 points per game due in large part to egregious communication breakdowns on the back end. Those miscues resulted in quarterbacks averaging 324 passing yards in that span, including 352 by the immortal Alex Smith.

On pace to rewrite NFL record books for all the wrong reasons, New England’s porous defense looked like it would prevent the franchise from making a legitimate run at its third Super Bowl championship in four seasons. If the Patriots could not stop Smith, a struggling Cam Newton and rookie Deshaun Watson, what hope did they have against Matt Ryan, Derek Carr and Ben Roethlisberger?

Strangely, the defense began to make small improvements when Gilmore sat out with a concussion. Special teams standout Johnson Bademosi stepped up admirably in Gilmore’s absence and played much better than anyone expected. In fact, there was talk among fans about whether Gilmore should even get his starting job back.

Since returning to the lineup in Week 10 against Denver, New England’s well-compensated corner has been worth every penny. While this four-game stretch is still a small sample size, there is no doubt that Gilmore’s turnaround has been the key to an improved Patriot pass defense that has held its last four opponents to an average of 174 passing yards.

The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder has always boasted the physical skill set defensive coordinators dream about. Blessed with length, speed and ball skills, Gilmore entered the league as the 10th pick in a star-studded draft that included two highly hyped quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, as well as a number of defensive stalwarts such as Luke Kuechly, Fletcher Cox, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Harrison Smith, Bobby Wagner and Josh Norman.

Nov 26, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (24) and strong safety Duron Harmon (30) intercept a pass intended for Miami Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker (11) in the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

While he flashed shutdown ability at times in Buffalo, Gilmore’s durability concerns popped up often. The South Carolina product played 16 games just once—in his rookie season. At times it appeared he was not interested in getting physical against the run and did not always play well in zone coverage.

Those problems were apparent early in the season, when Gilmore literally looked lost on the field. Yet, after sitting out three games with a concussion, the lightbulb went on and is glowing brightly.

After grading out as one of the least effective corners in the league, Gilmore currently ranks 15th in Pro Football Focus’s ratings with a grade of 86. Butler, on the other hand, ranks 38th with a 79.6 mark.

Gilmore has benefited from playing more man coverage, which caters to his strengths. He has successfully shut down Mike Evans and Devante Parker, and he and Butler completely silenced Oakland’s duo of Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper.

Most recently, Gilmore exacted his revenge against his former team. Returning to Ralph Wilson Stadium, the pressure was on the former first-round pick to prove why the Patriots handed him the largest free-agent contract in franchise history. Let’s just say he passed that test with flying colors.

New England’s top corner earned PFF’s highest game grade Sunday (92.7) and was a major reason why the Bills finished the day with their fewest passing yards of any game this year. Gilmore was targeted six times but surrendered only two catches for 22 yards while breaking up two attempts. His length and awareness were on full display on three successive goal-line attempts by Nathan Peterman, who foolishly tried to test the long-limbed defensive back.

With Gilmore playing at such a high level, the Patriots have been able to play more man coverage and utilize creative blitzes. It has also allowed Jonathan Jones to shine as the team’s nickel corner while also providing opportunities for free safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon to roam the deep part of the field and make plays on the ball.

It may have taken some time, but ultimately the investment in Gilmore is paying off. The highly skilled man coverage savant is playing with tremendous confidence that has permeated through the rest of the defense. If he maintains this level of consistency, the Patriots will be a tough defense to penetrate in the playoffs.

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