By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Every season is different, yet the Patriots are back in the Super Bowl. And the biggest difference from a year ago is at cornerback.
Debate Bill Belichick's decision to bench Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII all you want. The fact is, it brought special teamers Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards into the game on defense. It forced other defensive backs into unfavorable matchups. Whether Butler would have made a difference or not, it didn't go the Patriots' way.
Sunday against the Rams in Super Bowl LIII should be different. A year removed from losing in ugly fashion to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Patriots secondary is much better-equipped to have success against the Rams' pass-catchers.
This season, the Pats have struck a balance between All-Pro talents in their prime (Stephon Gilmore), savvy veterans put in positions to succeed (Jason McCourty), and a talented rookie who improved over the course of the season (J.C. Jackson). Add in the return of slot corner Jonathan Jones, who missed Super Bowl LII with an ankle injury, and you have a unit that's poised to atone for a game that got away from them last February.
Not that the younger McCourty (by about 27 minutes) or Jackson experienced that loss first-hand. But the important thing is they've played well as a group and they love to play for each other.
It's especially impressive when you look at the scope of the changes at cornerback in recent years. From the departure of Asante Samuel in 2008 to the arrival of now-Rams cornerback Aqib Talib in 2012, the Patriots mostly struggled to draft, develop, or acquire a viable secondary. That flipped once Talib came to town, and they've continued to play at a mostly high level amid rampant roster turnover. Only in 2015-16 did the Pats end the season with the same two starting corners.
Here are the starting left and right cornerbacks in the final game of the season since 2013:
2013, AFC Championship Game: Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard
2014, Super Bowl XLIX: Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner
2015 AFCCG, 2016 in Super Bowl LI: Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan
2017, Super Bowl LII: Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe
On Sunday, it's likely either McCourty or Jackson opposite Gilmore, marking five of six seasons with at least one new starter at cornerback. Yet when was the last time that the position was a major concern? How have the Patriots stayed relatively consistent, despite the constant changes?
"I would say it’s a credit to the players," cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer told 985TheSportsHub.com. "We’ve had good players who have worked hard and they’ve developed. Guys are coming from different teams, or coming up through our organization. They’ve made tremendous strides to try to improve and improve collectively as a group. I think the way we approach it is we try to get the best out of each individual every day, and from that day we go to the next day and try to improve what we did the day before.
"I think whether it’s a guy that’s had success in the league or a guy thats new to the league, our goal is always the same - to make that player the best player that player can be."
"I'm a grinder, man"
The Patriots have especially maximized the talents of undrafted cornerbacks in recent years. From Kyle Arrington, to Butler, to Jon Jones, and now Jackson, they've consistently found players ranging from useful to excellent after the final draft picks hit the board. Even castoffs like Cre'Von LeBlanc, who carved out a prominent role on the Eagles in 2018, have found success in the league.
"They work as hard as they possibly can and it's not just an effort thing," said Boyer. "They’re actually making progress as they’re working. It’s not just, ‘OK, if I come into the facility and I spend x amount of hours, I’m going to be better'. It’s quality, productive work while they’re there. And then [they have] the ability to take coaching, the ability to learn from veteran players."
There's a clear bond between the 23-year-old Jackson, who has averaged 54.7 snaps a game since Week 12, and his veteran counterparts. The rookie credited guys like Gilmore and the elder McCourty, Devin, for helping him navigate the overwhelming circus-like buildup to the Super Bowl.
"Follow the vets. Watch the vets, see how they move, guys who have experience who have been in this situation before," Jackson said. "I just watch those guys, see how they’re acting, what do they do to stay focused for a big game like this."
It's important for Jackson to have a short memory. He committed three potentially costly penalties against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game and allowed a third-quarter touchdown to tight end Travis Kelce. Up to that point, Jackson mostly excelled as a press-man boundary corner and the matchups weren't always easy. He most notably shut down the Steelers' JuJu Smith-Schuster to the tune of four catches on 10 targets and no touchdowns in Week 15.
"My coaches believe in me. They have me out there on the field, so that means a lot to me," said Jackson. "But I just try to not make the same mistakes twice. I’m a grinder, man. I just go to work and I try to get better each and every day."
It's good to have cornerbacks who play well together. But it's even better to have a group that supports each other as people.
"My guy Jerald," said a beaming Jason McCourty of Jackson before the AFC Championship Game. "He’s been fun to watch for me as an older guy here and him coming in as a rookie and talking to him all throughout training camp. I remember like a day or two into training camp, I went up to him and was like, 'How did you not get drafted?' I think early on, you guys saw it too, preseason games, training camp practices, he just was always around the ball making plays, catching picks, batting balls down. He’s just continued to grow and not only his ability, but his knowledge of the game picking up on defense from a game plan standpoint, starting to understand what ways offenses are going to try to attack us.
"It’s always fun as an older guy just to watch that and continue to talk to him, not only about game plan and football but also about life. Just going through and remembering back in those days when I was a rookie and everything that you go through, just continuing to talk to those guys I think is a ton of fun and it’s always exciting to see him have success."
"We don't strive to be playing our best football in September"
At the center of the cornerbacks' success this season, however, is Gilmore, the Patriots' high-priced anchor in the secondary. He got the recognition he deserved from writers and peers as a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowler in his second season in New England. He's also drawn unfair comparisons to Darrelle Revis or Hall of Fame finalist Ty Law. Hot takes aside, Gilmore emerged as a high-end corner after he looked like a mistake just four weeks into his Patriots career in 2017.
It almost always looks off-kilter for the Patriots at the start of the season. In some ways, it's by design.
"We don’t strive to be playing our best football in September," said Boyer. "Sometimes it’s good to see some adversity, and sometimes you put guys in situations just to see how they can handle it. There’s always an element of, 'OK, if a guy’s productive and you give him an opportunity, then they earn more opportunities."
Gilmore's opportunities grew over the course of his first two seasons in New England, and so has his production. He'll once more be a key player for the Patriots defense against the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, where he's likely to draw a matchup against former Bills teammate Robert Woods. Gilmore got to this point with his resilience as much as his physical gifts.
"You’ve got to be mentally strong to be a New England Patriot," Gilmore told reporters on Wednesday during the Patriots' media availability. "But I think that it gets the best out of you, day in and day out, week in and week out. It tests you mentally, and that’s what it’s about. It makes you stronger on the field and able to adapt."
The Patriots secondary has had to adapt as much as any positional group on the team. That's no more evident than the AFC Championship Game, in which Gilmore and Jackson split duties between Kelce and Sammy Watkins, and Jon Jones frequently covered the speedy Tyreek Hill with safety help. They made Belichick's bold decisions look like another Hoodie masterstroke.
Sunday presents another unique challenge against the Rams' receiver group, which also includes ex-Patriot Brandin Cooks and potential dark horse Josh Reynolds. Rams head coach Sean McVay is known to add wrinkles to his offense that teams haven't seen before. The cat-and-mouse game between him and Belichick will be a fascinating matchup to watch.
But ultimately, as Boyer says, it comes down to the players.
Their skill sets, adaptability, and mental toughness will be put to the ultimate test in the Super Bowl. But after how last February went, and how it's gone for them over the last six months, there's reason to be confident that this time they'll reward their coaches - and each other - for their hard work this season.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].