TAMPA, Fla. -- As we were kicking around the idea of the Patriots possibly running the table and finishing 19-0 this spring and summer, we pointed to a number of positions or groupings being the best in the league or at least in the conversation.
Quarterback? Check. Wide receiver? Check. Tight end? Check. Secondary? Check.
The quarterback, a fellow by the name of Tom Brady, has lived up to that expectation. He’s on pace for 5,700 yards, 40 touchdowns and no interceptions. That doesn’t suck. The wide receiver spot took a hit when Julian Edelman tore his ACL and Malcolm Mitchell re-injured his chronically bad knee and landed on IR (with the chance to return), but points and big plays haven’t been a problem from the position. Rob Gronkowski enters Thursday’s game with Tampa Bay dealing with a quad issue that may limit him, but in each of the last three weeks, he’s been a beast, looking very much like the player who’s dominated the league when he’s been healthy.
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That leaves the secondary . . .
In no way, shape or form should the defensive backfield look as awful as it has. There’s loads of experience there, not just in this league, but in this system. They return nine defensive backs who played on last year's Super Bowl-winning team: Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Pat Chung, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Jordan Richards, Nate Ebner and Brandon King. Yes, the latter duo is, and has been, special teams only, but they attend meetings, have to know coverages and checks just like the guys that get the lion share of the snaps.
That brings us the one newcomer in the room and on the field: Stephon Gilmore. His resume is impressive. He went to the Pro Bowl a season ago with the Bills, intercepting five passes, and he was durable enough to play in all but a dozen games over his first five years in the league.
Gilmore has a first-round pedigree, coming into the league back in 2012 as the 10th overall pick. His collegiate battles at South Carolina with another high pick, Alshon Jeffrey, are legendary. His old ball coach, Steve Spurrier, said it was Gilmore’s commitment to South Carolina as the state’s Mr. Football that let the program take off, later influencing fellow Mr. Footballs -- Jadeveon Clowney and Marcus Lattimore -- to stay in state. Gilmore started every game in college, even playing some quarterback in the “WildCock” offense. He left school with a 3.2 GPA. He’s not just some guy with fast feet. He has the brains to process all of it, on both sides of the ball.
Until his arrival in Foxboro, that is.
Through four games, Gilmore is the 71st-rated cornerback on the analytic website Pro Football Focus. That’s generous. The site doesn’t take into account the miscommunications that have plagued the Pats veteran secondary, and the fact that Gilmore has been in the middle of far too many of those mental errors. I’ve outlined those mistakes on Monday Night Patriots and on my Twitter timeline.
Oh sure, he’s not the only one. Chung has been guilty, and seen his playing time decrease because of it. McCourty hasn’t played to his level. Butler got his playing time reduced in Week 2 versus New Orleans. Rowe was completely lost Sunday before re-injuring his groin.
But Gilmore sticks out like a sore thumb that just got smashed by a hammer. He is the X factor, replacing the mentally sound Logan Ryan this season. Ryan’s a player that doesn’t have Gilmore’s physical gifts but was a terrific communicator and sound tackler. Gilmore is lacking in both areas so far.
That’s why you have to believe the constant harping on communication issues by the leaders of that secondary, McCourty and Harmon, are directed at Gilmore first and foremost. As if they’re telling us it’s him but just not saying his name. Why else would the coaching staff almost immediately strip down the coverages and checks after Week 1? Why else would Harmon say “it can’t get no simpler than it is” after Sunday’s failures versus Carolina? That McCourty --- always measured, regardless of the scenario -- was emotional after the loss, and called it embarrassing? McCourty didn’t just forget how to run the secondary, but appears distracted on the field at times, trying to get Gilmore in the right place or in the right call. Ditto for Harmon. Chung is one of the team’s smarter players. Suddenly he doesn’t know how to cover bunch formations?
No, the common denominator is Gilmore. Until he figures out that communication entails not only talking but listening, what should have been one of the best secondaries in football is going to continue to get gashed for big plays and the pressure, already building, will only get worse.
Ball’s in your court, No. 24, but it won’t stay there for long. Bill Belichick has never been afraid to make hard decisions -- he sat Gilmore down to begin the third quarter Sunday before Rowe’s injury forced him to go back to his free-agent prize -- and one can only imagine what lengths the coach will go to if the 27-year old Gilmore doesn’t figure it out and figure it out soon.