FOXBORO -- It's not a bad problem to have.
The Patriots just put together what was perhaps their best defensive performance of the season, limiting Atlanta to seven points at Gillette Stadium to move their record to 5-2. Yet they did so without two of their top three corners.
With Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe out, Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones helped fill the void. Matt Ryan threw for only 233 yards -- the first time the Patriots held an opposing quarterback to under 300 yards this season -- and Julio Jones was essentially a non-factor until the game was already in hand.
MORE ON THE DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD
- Bademosi rises to occasion when given chance to play
- Giardi: No Gilmore, no problems for Patriots secondary
The next question for Bill Belichick and his defensive coaching staff is . . . now what? Keep rolling with what worked in Week 7, with Bademosi playing starter's snaps? Or go back to Gilmore once he's healthy, relegating Bademosi to his previous role as a core special-teamer? (Rowe is still dealing with a groin injury, and though he's done some light running as part of the rehabilitation process, the injury continues to linger.)
On Tuesday, Belichick was asked about Bademosi's role moving forward after two weeks as an emergency starter opposite Malcolm Butler.
"The guys that play the best play the most," he said. "The guys that don’t play as well continue to keep working until their performance either moves ahead of somebody else’s or they get an opportunity because of circumstances. I mean, it’s pretty fundamental the way it works. When the players get that opportunity, then it’s up to them to perform in that situation that they’re called to play on.
"Depending on how the performance goes, then that will probably either lead to less or more playing time eventually once it declares itself. So, that’s up to each individual player. Not every player can control the opportunities that he gets. Sometimes, I mean, those are coaches’ decisions, and sometimes those opportunities become available through the unavailability of other players. So, in other words, a guy doesn’t necessarily go out there and beat somebody out in training camp competition, but because of circumstances, an opportunity arises and then the player does whatever he does with the opportunity. That’s up to each individual player. That’s why each player needs to always be prepared, always be ready, so that when that opportunity comes, he’s able to take advantage of it and not miss the opportunity and then that will hurt his chances the next time, but also he loses the chance to improve his value to the team.
"All players want to be valuable to the team, all players want to contribute, all players want to play, all players want to increase their role, but it’s a very competitive situation. This league’s very competitive, and we know we’re all judged on our performance and our production, so when those opportunities come, you’ve got to take advantage of them."
Bademosi has done just that, showing up in the right place at the right time consistently against the Jets and Falcons -- something that several Patriots defensive backs struggled to accomplish through the first month of the season. He had a pass-breakup playing underneath coverage on Jones with Duron Harmon "topping" (doubling and protecting against deeper routes). Bademosi also made a pair of strong tackles on wide-receiver screens, putting to use some of the physicality that has made him a standout in the kicking game over the course of his career.
Brought aboard to help fill a special-teams gap left primarily by captain Matthew Slater, who was dealing with a hamstring injury to start the season, Bademosi has long been on the Patriots radar. Former director of pro personnel Bob Quinn showed an interest in Bademosi as the Patriots prepped for the 2016 free-agency period. When Quinn took the general manager job in Detroit that year, he beat his old club to the punch and signed Bademosi before the Patriots could.
"Bademosi was," Belichick explained, "probably one of our top-ranked guys for the roles that we projected him in."
After the Lions loaded up in the defensive backfield, Bademosi became a more expendable piece, and the Patriots picked him up for a sixth-round pick just before the start of this season.
He's done nothing but impress, and now he may be in position for a larger role defensively than many expected him to have when he first arrived in New England.
"He prepares hard every week and he’s ready to go whatever his role is, whether it be on special teams or a unit on defense or last week it was a starting role on defense," Belichick said. "But, he’s very professional. He’s smart and he takes his job seriously and really has a good work ethic and goes through all the steps and preparation that he can to prepare himself for the game, whatever that role happens to be. So, he’s done a good job of that for us."
Gilmore, who has been out with a concussion, will still have a role in the Patriots defense when he returns. And, in my opinion, a significant one.
He's being paid as one of the top corners in the game for a reason, he's the team's most physically-gifted corner, and even if he had his issues through the first month -- he was benched to start the second half in Week 4 against Carolina -- the Patriots will provide him opportunities to show that he's figured things out. After helping limit Tampa Bay's Mike Evans in Week 5, it's clear Gilmore is a capable corner when he's confident in his understanding of the defense.
But in his absence, Bademosi seems to have earned himself continued playing time. That means that when Gilmore returns the Patriots will have to figure out how all of the pieces fit together in their secondary.