Tumultuous would be a good way to describe the beginning of Stephon Gilmore’s tenure as a New England Patriot.
Gilmore was signed on Day 1 of free agency last March, which is un-Patriot like to begin with. His five-year, $65 million contract was the largest ever given to a free agent in team history.
When the Patriots started 2-2, nearly all of the blame fell squarely on the defense. The unit was dead last in virtually every key metric, specifically total defense and passing defense.
It would be unfair to place all of the blame on Gilmore, but he was also the only new face in a secondary that included multiple two-time Super Bowl champions in Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Malcolm Butler and Duron Harmon. The rest of the group had proven themselves winners; Gilmore, while unquestionably talented, had not.
Gilmore played a great game in New England’s Week 5 win over Tampa Bay as he matched up one-on-one with Bucs receiver Mike Evans for the majority of the game and limited him to five catches for 49 yards. The 49 yards for Evans remain the fewest he’s gained in a full game this season.
A concussion and ankle injury forced Gilmore out of the lineup for the next month or so, during which time the Patriots began to really turn things around on the defensive side of the ball. But since his return for the Nov. 12 game in Denver against the Broncos, Gilmore has carried over the promise of not only his game against Tampa Bay, but the promise of why Bill Belichick signed him away from the Buffalo Bills to begin with.
“He’s been consistent all year, he really has,” Belichick said of Gilmore at his press conference on Wednesday morning. “He’s been consistent from the spring, to training camp. I think if you pulled out last week’s practice and pulled out one in September or May and took the weather out of it and everything else, and if you didn’t really know what day it was you’d see pretty much the same guy every day. He comes to work. He works hard at his job, tries to play the technique. If he makes a mistake, you correct him on it and he tries to improve it and do it right, but he does it right a lot and he’s got a lot of good skill and experience. He’s a very consistent guy.”
Gilmore didn’t have many opportunities to flash in Sunday’s 35-17 win over the Miami Dolphins, but he certainly made the most of his opportunities. Miami quarterback Matt Moore looked in Gilmore’s direction only three times, completing one pass for five yards. The completion came on Moore’s very first drop back of the game and wound up being the lone reception for Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker.
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The next time Moore looked in Gilmore’s direction came as the first half wound down and Miami trailed 21-10, but was nonetheless in a position to pull off New England’s vaunted double score.
The Dolphins were on the Patriots 15-yard line with 17 seconds left in the half and were set to receive the second half kickoff. Moore took a shot at the end zone, only for Gilmore to play Parker’s route perfectly and come down with the ball along the goal line for his second interception of the season to get New England to the half with an 11-point cushion.
Once the Patriots forced the Dolphins to go three-and-out and score on their first series of the second half, the game was effectively over, with Gilmore’s pick serving as the catalyst.
As Gilmore explained after the game on Sunday, he knew exactly what the Dolphins were doing before the snap on his interception.
“They ran that route on us earlier in the first quarter and I knew they were going to come back to it,” Gilmore said. “I know every time [DeVante] Parker is in the slot he runs the seam, empty so I just beat him to the spot.”
New England has won seven games in a row to improve to 9-2 on the season. Both a playoff spot and the AFC East title are formalities at this point, both of which are brand new concepts for Gilmore.
During Gilmore’s first five years in the league with the Bills, Buffalo had just one winning season – a 9-7 mark in 2014. He never made the playoffs with Buffalo.
The Patriots will go for their eighth win in a row this Sunday in a stadium where Tom Brady has had plenty of success over the years: New Era Field (née Ralph Wilson Stadium) in Orchard Park, New York, home of the Bills. Brady is 13-2 on the road there as a starter and can move into a tie with Drew Bledsoe for most wins by a quarterback on Buffalo’s home turf since the 2001 season.
It will also be Gilmore’s first game against the organization that drafted him 10th overall in 2012.
The Bills cleaned house (again) in the off-season and turned things over to a new general manager in Brandon Beane and a new head coach in Sean McDermott.
The timeline of McDermott’s hiring in January and Gilmore’s departure in March barely crossover, so the two likely had little – if any – communication prior to Gilmore’s defection to Foxboro.
McDermott seems aware of Gilmore’s early struggles in Foxboro, but doesn’t appear surprised that he’s turned things around.
“He’s a good player,” McDermott said in a conference call Wednesday morning. “I know he had a time or two earlier in the year where some things got away from their defense, but I’m sure the time on task for him in their system has only helped over the course of the season.”
The Patriots will go for win No. 10 on the season at 1 p.m. on Sunday against the Bills (6-5). A win will put New England four games up in the division with four games left to play.