CINCINNATI — Stephon Gilmore knew what was coming. Or at least he had a very good idea. That much was clear.
Gilmore made two picks in the third quarter of his team's 34-13 win over the Bengals, the second of which he took back for a 64-yard touchdown to make the score 27-10. Almost single-handedly, he buried a one-win team that was sniffing its second, down just three points trotting out for the second half.
"On the first, he kind of got me off the line, but I knew the route so I undercut it and made a good play," Gilmore said. "The second one, kind of knew the route, too. Was able to jump it. We had a blitz coverage so I knew our pressure was going to get there, and I was able to make a play."
Gilmore had an idea of what to expect on those throws not because of anything the Patriots content team shot of the Bengals sidelines the week prior. That video, at least a portion of it, was broadcast by Fox on Sunday and showed the Bengals sidelines as substitutions were made.
What Gilmore studied in the days leading up to the trip to Southwest Ohio were routes. Route combinations. Concepts. Splits. Situations. Gilmore's anticipation on both of his picks was thanks to the film study he engaged in prior to Sunday, he explained.
"They gotta switch the play up," Gilmore said. "I won't say it was easy, but I knew the route. I trusted myself, and I was able to make a play."
On the game-changing interception-return, slot receiver Tyler Boyd aligned as the No. 2 (count receivers from the outside-in on both sides of the formation) to the field (the side opposite the hash where the ball is snapped), and he ran a quick out-route on first-and-15. Under pressure, Andy Dalton went for it.
"As soon as he threw it," Gilmore said, "I knew I was going. Just had to catch it."
Gilmore said he knew the routes coming on both of his picks.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) December 16, 2019
On the pick-6, he knew the Patriots were pressuring, knew the ball would have to come out quickly. Playing off on 1st and 15, Gilmore could sit on something short. Jumped it easily. pic.twitter.com/j1ul9vLKDS
The play, it turns out, has been somewhat of a go-to for the Bengals offense when they've been in get-back-on-schedule situations, trying to manufacture a manageable third down. (A play that goes for eight yards on first-and-15, for example, creates a more manageable second-and-7, which is more likely to lead to third-and-short.)
In Week 8, Boyd was the No. 2 receiver to the field side on a get-back-on-schedule second-and-13 play. Similar scenario. Similar concept.
Gilmore said film study during the week helped him understand what might be coming...— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) December 16, 2019
That quick out from Boyd is a play the Bengals like when they have to get back on schedule. Ran it in Week 8. 2nd and 13. Boyd is the No. 2 WR to the field (as he was today). Back on schedule. pic.twitter.com/RIO4YvjeWP
There it was again in Week 5 — Boyd as the No. 2, running an out-route on second-and-long — helping the Bengals chip away at the Cardinals defense.
Week 5. Another out-route from the Bengals here to Boyd on second and long. He’s the No. 2 WR. No. 1 goes vertical. Similar splits to the Rams play and the Patriots play. pic.twitter.com/iJ8rQSWKG3— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) December 16, 2019
There it was yet again in Week 4, during a divisional matchup between the Bengals and the Steelers. It was second-and-11. Boyd was the No. 2 to the field side. And, despite the fact that it was a long throw, Dalton wanted to give Boyd an opportunity to make a play.
Another get-back-on-schedule play. Boyd is the No. 2 to the field again. Out route again. Long throw broken up even though the DB has inside leverage.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) December 16, 2019
Boyd noted today that Gilmore had outside leverage on the out-route that became a pick-six. “Think it’s going to be a pick?” 🤔 pic.twitter.com/eQr5WzJYJ4
When Gilmore aligned across from Boyd on first-and-15 Sunday, he did so playing off of Boyd's outside shoulder. With a good understanding of what might be headed his way, Gilmore wanted to take away Boyd's path to the sideline.
Boyd knew that Gilmore knew, and because Boyd knew the play was likely doomed before the ball was snapped, he awaited an audible call that never came.
"He (had) outside leverage," Boyd said of Gilmore. "He had perfect leverage on an out-route. We were running an out-route to the field with man coverage, outside leverage. Think it's going to be a pick?"
Boyd was also the intended target when Gilmore made his first pick of the afternoon.
"It was just one-on-one," Boyd said. "I won the majority of the matchups . . . But the two plays he made were great plays. He sat on the curl and played great leverage on the out-route. He was already in perfect leverage. We should have (called) a slant."
Boyd is just the latest receiver Gilmore has frustrated. He was targeted five times with Gilmore on him, catching only two for 24 yards. On top of the two interceptions, Gilmore also broke up a pass intended for Boyd.
Gilmore now leads the league with six interceptions, and he has a league-high 16 disruptions (breakups and picks combined). According to Pro Football Focus, Gilmore has allowed only 46.3 percent of targets sent his way to be completed, which is the second among corners. His quarterback rating when targeted is 32.8, which is tops among corners who've played at least 60 percent of their team's defensive snaps.
With excellent speed, enough size to play physical man coverage, and the IQ to have a sense of what's about to happen before it does, Gilmore is putting together another All-Pro caliber season to add to last year's masterpiece. If he keeps it up, he might eventually be recognized as the league's Defensive Player of the Year.
Gilmore is on the kind of run that had him feeling thankful Sunday evening — thankful that Dalton kept throwing his way.
"They gave me an opportunity," Gilmore said. "If they don't throw it, I'm not going to make no plays . . . Appreciate it."