The Patriots are officially in a post-Stephon Gilmore world, but the truth is it’s been going on for almost a calendar year.
Gilmore’s last game with the Patriots was Dec. 20, 2020, a 22-12 road loss to the Miami Dolphins. J.C. Jackson has been in the No. 1 role by default in the six games since, with mixed results. Now, his role is simply consummated.
Jackson got dusted by the Bills’ Stefon Diggs in a 38-9 loss in Week 16 of the 2020 season, but has compiled two interceptions and four total pass breakups in four games in his first full year as the top guy. He and the team are used to it by now, and they have a full vote of confidence from head coach Bill Belichick.
“Well, that’s been the way that it’s been for the end of last season and this season,” Belichick said Wednesday, when asked about his confidence in Jackson’s ability to step up as the team’s “new” No. 1 cornerback. Asked if he’s confident in the overall group without Gilmore going forward, Belichick snipped back: “Well, are you trying to relate the two situations? I don’t really understand the question. Do I think J.C. [Jackson] is a good player? Yeah. I think J.C. [Jackson] is a good player. He’s a very good player. He’s performed well for us, so yes. He’s a good corner. He’s a good player.”
Free-agent addition Jalen Mills came to New England having converted to more of a hybrid defensive back, but over the summer emerged as the team’s No. 2 outside corner. He was arguably the Patriots’ best cornerback in an admirable performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, limiting Bucs wideout Chris Godwin to three catches for 55 yards.
Tampa Bay appeared to put up solid receiving numbers on paper, but the Patriots clearly employed a “bend-but-don’t-break” approach designed to keep them out of the end zone and minimize yards after the catch. It wasn’t enough to win, but holding the defending Super Bowl champions to 19 points and Tom Brady to 269 yards with no touchdown passes is impressive on its own. And perhaps a sign that the post-Gilmore Patriots are better off in the secondary than once believed.
“We’ve been pretty healthy at that position,” Belichick said Wednesday. “I’d say, overall, that group’s played pretty well. There’s always room for improvement. I’m not saying that, but overall, we’ve played the passing game fairly well this year and played the best passing game in the league last week and played that competitively, so I’d say there are other areas on the team that are maybe more, again, everything can be improved, but I’d say there are other areas that can improve more than that group.”
The Patriots still have slot corner Jonathan Jones, who held Antonio Brown to seven catches for 63 largely inconsequential yards, while playing a lot on the outside. Mike Evans caught seven out of 12 targets for 75 yards while being covered by Jackson, but like the others was kept out of the end zone. Other than one 28-yard catch, Jackson prevented Evans from burning him for big plays.
Rookie cornerback Shaun Wade remains a dark horse to contribute later in the season. He has yet to be active in a game, but Belichick said he’s progressing “good” so far and that the corners who haven’t played will “eventually help us.”
Third-year pro Joejuan Williams was a healthy scratch on Sunday against the Bucs, while practice squad DB Myles Bryant got elevated to the main roster and played nine defensive snaps. Williams has averaged just 11.4 defensive snaps per game since being selected 45th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. If his development had gone better over the first two seasons and change, the loss of Gilmore may sting less.
But Gilmore, besides being “Coach Steph” behind the scenes, has been largely a ghost in Foxborough for months now. The Patriots have forged ahead with Jackson atop the cornerback depth chart, and solid players backing him up. They’ve mostly performed to a respectable standard. The Patriots have allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards in the NFL, and the second-lowest opposing passer rating (67.6). Again, that’s after facing Brady and the Super Bowl champions, with a stacked receiver group.
The Patriots’ road to trading Gilmore was bumpy. But the post-Gilmore path should be smoother.
Here’s more from this edition of the 98.5 The Sports Hub Patriots Notebook…