The New England Patriots were unable to continue their torrid start on the defensive side of the ball once the schedule picked up and they played teams that were not from New York or Washington. No one will deny that the unit is talented enough to be considered one of the best in the NFL, but all that talk about its place in history next to the truly great defenses of the past has rightfully been put to bed.
One player, however, has not slowed down one bit: Stephon Gilmore. The South Carolina product is having the best season of his career, and one of the better seasons we've seen from any cornerback in this new pass-happy NFL. As the best player at the most important non-quarterback position in the league, with the season he's having, Gilmore should run away with the Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
Through 14 games, Gilmore has nearly half as many pass deflections (18) as completions allowed (40). Those 18 deflections are tied for the league lead with the Buccaneers' Carlton Davis, who somehow has that many deflections while usually playing no more than 20 percent of his team's defensive snaps in a game. Gilmore, of course, plays almost all of the Patriots' defensive snaps. The only other cornerback near Gilmore's level right now hails from Buffalo in the form of Tre'Davious White.
White has given up 40 completions on 81 targets vs. Gilmore's 40 on 80 targets. He has given up more yards on those completions, however; White's completions add up to a total of 545 yards, while Gilmore has given up only 417. When White does get beat, it's usually for a decent gain, giving up an average of 13 yards per completion. Gilmore clocks in at merely 10 yards per completion.
Gilmore isn't quite getting the treatment we've seen the best cornerbacks receive in the past, where QBs avoid throwing to them like their lives depend on it. But when they decide to throw at him, he's making them pay like no other corner in the league right now. He's tied for the league lead with six interceptions and has returned two of them for touchdowns. Jeff Howe gave us this fun stat on Monday morning after Gilmore's two-INT day against Cincinnati:
It's hard to point to exactly why Gilmore is so good; he's not an other-worldly athlete, and doesn't have any jaw-dropping highlights that exhibit unnatural instincts for the position like a Darrelle Revis-type would. He just has the right combination of athleticism and football IQ where he knows where he needs to be at any given time, and the speed and quickness to ensure he can get there.
The talent around him certainly helps, but every week, Bill Belichick throws Gilmore on the other team's best receiver and relies on him to take them out of the game. Gilmore has yet to disappoint. His "worst" game this year came against DeAndre Hopkins, who had five catches for 64 yards and no touchdowns. For most cornerbacks, giving up that statline to a receiver of that caliber would be one of their best games of the year.
Simply put, Gilmore is operating at another level from any other cornerback this season. He'll never get beat deep and he's got the hands to take advantage when quarterbacks do throw his way. When he does give up the rare catch, he doesn't give up any additional yards; his victims have gained only 151 yards after the catch this season, averaging out to three yards after the catch per completion.
He's been far and away the best player on one of the better teams in the league this year, and should probably get even MVP consideration. That's a long shot for any defensive player, but with two games to go, Gilmore is the leading candidate to earn his first Defensive Player of the Year Trophy-- and it isn't even close.