FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — He plopped at his locker last Sunday only moments after having soared and swatted the ball away into the dark, cool Gillette Stadium night. It was a picture-perfect defensive play that defined the AFC Championship. Yet, cornerback Stephon Gilmore looked so tranquil. He spoke so softly.
He might as well have been sprawled back on his Rock Hill, S.C., hometown sofa. Or back lounging at the University of South Carolina. He was so snug, so calm, as if he had just finished an early August, ho-hum preseason game in an NFL outpost like Cleveland.
No, this was in decorated Patriots land and this was for entry into Super Bowl 52. It was Gilmore who helped deliver with his clever pass breakup on fourth-and-15 from the New England 43-yard line with 1:47 left, a Blake Bortles pass meant for receiver Dede Westbrook that Gilmore, in man coverage, reached high and snuffed.
“We knew we had one more series, one more play that had to be made,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said about the Jacksonville Jaguars final offensive drive. “Stephon made it.”
And then Gilmore went about his business as if it had not happened at all.
This docile, measured personality and approach has served Gilmore well. When he was the 10th pick of the 2012 draft by the Buffalo Bills, he employed this approach over his first five NFL seasons. He was a Pro Bowl cornerback in his final Bills season in 2016.
The Patriots made a $65 million offseason, free agent investment in Gilmore. His 2017 Patriots season was full of questions about his value.
But in this AFC Championship game, Gilmore produced when the Patriots needed him most, Bill Belichick said.
Gilmore’s serene approach to it all was his pathway to triumph.
“When you come to a new team, you have to figure everything out and get used to different people,” Gilmore said. “It’s no excuse. You keep working. I have confidence in myself. The coaches are putting me in position to make some plays that I am supposed to make. It’s a challenging position. Why make it harder? I just stay cool about it.”
This was the attitude the Bills discovered when they scouted Gilmore for the 2012 draft.
Doug Whaley was then the Bills’ assistant general manager to Buddy Nix before Whaley later became the Bills’ general manager from 2013 through 2017. They liked Gilmore’s length (6’1). They liked his skills. If he fell to them at No. 10, Whaley said, the Bills were ready to pounce.
“It’s interesting, because one of the things people said about him in the scouting process was that he was so quiet and that is not usually a trait associated with shutdown corners and their braggadocios personalities,” Whaley said. “It actually might have hurt him with some teams on their draft boards. But we thought it would translate into a professional attitude on and off the field and once we got him he proved all of that to be true.”
When the Bills hired new head coach Sean McDermott last year, the team’s focus became to build for McDermott’s new defensive schemes and offensive plan. That meant spreading the salary cap in new ways. It meant that Gilmore was a high-priced cornerback that the team could no longer fit into its overall plans.
Gilmore got it.
He turned to New England for a fresh start and for bigger moments.
“His play in Buffalo was solid,” Whaley said. “Very nice, a very good player, but certainly there were some times he and all of us wish he had made some bigger plays. He was not a disappointment. But his lack of interception production does not connect with the skills of a true cover guy, ball-hawking, shutdown corner. I think he has two picks this year? Well, it’s just that part of it that makes him get lost in the discussion of great, great corners. But he’s got so much that he contributes. And he always kept building. He just keeps building to get better and better. And I think everybody in New England today must say that he was well worth their investment having made the one play that helped push them over the top and into the Super Bowl.”
Westbrook ran across the field left to right and deep toward the right sideline. Gilmore trailed him. He undercut Westbrook based on the route. He used his hops, length, and reach to swat the ball with his right hand.
“Had Dede one-on-one going across the field,” Bortles said. “I got to give him a better ball so he can make the play.”
If Bortles had thrown it higher, with more arc, Gilmore might have leapt higher, with more reach. If Bortles had waited longer for Westbrook to further clear, Gilmore might have sped forward, keeping pace, staying in position to lunge.
It was what it was and Gilmore won.
“It wasn’t the biggest play I’ve made, but it was definitely one of the most important,” Gilmore said.
Teammate and safety Duron Harmon calls Gilmore a “silent assassin.” Gilmore’s Patriots teammates respect his talent. They know that on a team and in a league full of special skills that Gilmore has some of the rarest ability among them.
Now to use it in Super Bowl 52.
“The coaches here want us to go after the ball, to be the receiver,” Gilmore said. “I know I can get in a guy’s face and match up with him. I know my game. I trust myself. I know myself.”