Stephon Gilmore

Stephon Gilmore has corrected his course with Patriots

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Stephon Gilmore has corrected his course with Patriots

FOXBORO -- Devin McCourty could barely wait for the question to finish before he started answering.

He knew what he wanted to say because he had lived it himself. At the root of the discussion was cornerback Stephon Gilmore and his improved play. The query was whether Gilmore’s early season struggles and adversity had actually proven to be a positive in the long run -- allowing the player to reveal his true character to a new locker room.

“I kind of look at everything similar to when I played corner here,” recalled McCourty in an almost empty Patriots locker room. “When you play corner, you already feel like you’re on an island by yourself and then when it doesn’t go well, you’re like, ‘[shoot], I am by myself out here.’ It gives you a very resilient attitude. I’m just going make my plays.”

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Gilmore has made his share over the last few weeks, looking very much like a player worth the resources the team invested in him. Sunday, he drew Miami’s DeVante Parker and made him disappear faster than the turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving Day. Parker caught just one ball for five yards. The big receiver was also Matt Moore’s red-zone target just prior to halftime; Gilmore intercepted the underthrown pass like he knew it was coming. That’s because he did.

“They ran that route on us earlier in the first quarter and I knew they were going to come back to it,” said Gilmore. “Every time DeVante Parker is in the slot, he runs the seam empty so I just beat him to the spot.”

“It was a huge play. No question, a big momentum play,” said Bill Belichick.

McCourty had a front-row seat for the interception and watched Gilmore nearly snag a second before being “a team player” and letting Duron Harmon live up to his "closer" reputation and get the pick himself. The veteran safety smiled in approval at the memory and what he’s seen from the 27-year old corner since his tumultuous start to the season.

“He’s really played well for us the last couple of weeks, going out there and shutting down people has been big for us,” said McCourty. “I’ve been telling him this since he got here: 'You’re a good player and you’re going to keep playing good for us. Don’t worry about about what’s going on, what people are saying.' I think his confidence hasn’t swayed and I think that’s been a big plus for him to just go out and keep playing.”

Gilmore insisted over the first month of the season that his mistakes were not physical and that gave him reason to believe he’d eventually turn the corner. He owned up to those mistakes even if that confidence seemed a bit odd to the untrained eye. He agrees that there was a silver lining in those woes, that his teammates got a crash course in who he was and what he was all about, although to hear Gilmore talk, it makes it seem like it’s nothing new for anyone worth a damn playing cornerback. 

“Yeah, that comes with the position,” said Gilmore. “Anytime you’re playing corner, playing man-to-man, that one mistake you make everybody’s going to see it. I’m able to take that. I know how to take it and get better and better every game. I come out on top eventually.”

That’s not misguided. Gilmore is on the right track and now nods approvingly when asked if he’s playing some of the best football of his career. 

“Yeah,” he said, “I think I am.”

The adjustment period is over. Gilmore has stood up to Mike Evans in Tampa, Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, Michael Crabtree in Mexico City and now Miami’s Parker in front of the Gillette Stadium crowd. Those challenges would range from strong to quite strong and Gilmore has handled each and every one. But it doesn’t get easier here in the stretch run. In fact, now Gilmore must go back to where he spent the previous five years of his career and face an angry Buffalo fanbase that didn’t take to kindly to him leaving and his references to finally getting a chance to play in prime time and play for a winner. 

“I’m here now. I love playing with the guys. I have respect for what the Bills are doing; they have so many talented players on their team,” he said.

Pressed on what he thinks the atmosphere will be like, Gilmore only acknowledged that it will be “loud” but didn’t want to go any deeper than that, at least not yet.

That Buffalo fanbase is boisterous and a little bit wild. The parking lot pre- and postgame is not for the timid. Hell, the stadium can be nearly as bad. While Gilmore wasn’t willing to go there, McCourty would when I asked him about culture shock being a piece of what Gilmore went through during his first summer and handful of regular season games.

“If they lose and lose by a lot no one really cares,” said McCourty of Buffalo’s fans. “Here everyone expects you to win every time you’re going on the field. When you’re the new guy and it’s not going right, people want to point fingers. In any adversity, you realize these are your guys in the locker room and we never turned on him. Guys had his back. I think he felt that and knew that. A 16-game season is not going to go well all the time. You keep pushing, keep working, keep playing and eventually it will turn for you.”

Gilmore has made that turn. Now down the stretch they come. 

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Big-play breakdown: Gilmore knew Parker's route before he ran it

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Big-play breakdown: Gilmore knew Parker's route before he ran it

FOXBORO -- Stephon Gilmore understood what he'd be getting. He'd seen it on film before. Heck, he'd seen it earlier in the game.

With 16 seconds remaining in the first half on Sunday, the Dolphins came to the line of scrimmage with five receivers split out wide and a chance to cut an 11-point Patriots lead to four. Gilmore aligned across from DeVante Parker, knowing all along what route Parker would be running.

It was all thanks to the film study, Gilmore said later. He recognized the formation. He understood how Parker fit into the formation and what the tendency was for receivers working from that spot. As a result, Gilmore put himself in position to make his second interception as a member of the Patriots, "a huge play -- no question -- a big momentum play," according to Bill Belichick. 

It was arguably the most important singular play in the 35-17 win for the Patriots. From Gilmore's perspective, here's how it all went down . . .

With three receivers to the left side of the formation, the Patriots matched the Dolphins with man-to-man coverage. Gilmore took Parker, the second receiver to quarterback Matt Moore's left, and he knew that Parker would be running a fade to the back corner of the end zone.

"I knew," Gilmore said. "His position in that formation, I mean, that's the only route he runs."

Gilmore added: "I just knew the route from film study. They ran that same exact route in the first quarter, and they just flipped the formation."

Two steps into Parker's route, Gilmore had already turned and started running. He knew he was going to have to cover some ground, and he knew that Parker's size made him a formidable down-the-field jump-ball receiver. 

"I kind of looked at him and beat him to the spot," Gilmore said. "I turned my hips. I opened up before he even ran his route, and I was able to see it before him."

Gilmore pressed Parker at the line for much of the afternoon, holding the former first-round pick to one catch for five yards on three targets. On this play, though, he played about five yards off of Parker, and he didn't get physical with him. He didn't need to.

"I was pressing him the whole time, and he couldn't get off the press," Gilmore said. "I saw it a couple times on film. He struggled off press. But he's a good deep-ball guy. He's got great size, he can make plays downfield."

To recap: Gilmore knew the route; he gave the receiver an easy release off the line of scrimmage; and then he beat the receiver to the spot, undercutting Parker as Parker made his move to the corner.

So did Gilmore bait Moore into making the throw in his direction?

"It's kind of baiting," Gilmore said. "A little bit. But I don't think it's baiting because he wasn't beating me. I think baiting is when you let him get in a certain area and then you go. I think it's just film study and a great play."

After Gilmore high-pointed the football and returned it up the field, he pulled himself off the turf and made an "X" with his wrists to let people know, "I was locking him up."

Gilmore was targeted three times in the game. Two of those throws were picked -- Duron Harmon yanked away from Gilmore what would have been his second pick of the game -- meaning Moore had a rating of 2.7 when throwing in Gilmore's direction. It was the most dominant of three solid outings Gilmore has put together since coming back from a concussion and an ankle injury that kept him out from Week 6 through the Week 9 bye. 

Gilmore insisted he isn't necessarily feeling more confident now than he was during the season's first month when the majority of Patriots secondary was struggling. Ask him and he'll tell you he's felt all along like he had these types of performances in him. It was only a matter of time.

"I'm always confident in my game," he said. "Everything not going to always happen how you want it. You keep faith, and you keep working on your game. I'm the type of player I am. It'll come out, you just gotta keep working in practice, making plays in practice, and it'll carry over to the game. 

"I just take the good with the bad. You've got to at corner. You're on an island. Any mistake you make, everybody knows. They'll say something. It's part of the position. You gotta have a short-term memory and be able to come back and fight."

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Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

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The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.