Heading into his second NFL season, the Bills’ Stephon Gilmore was gaining a reputation as a rising shutdown corner. But that notion went quickly crashing to the ground when Gilmore was the one who got shut down.
Gilmore was having a terrific camp, inspiring talk that he might be the team’s most indispensable player, when he broke his left wrist against the Redskins in the third preseason game. He returned after missing five games, a club-like cast on his arm, and has been a shell of himself ever since.
He has been a noble teammate, performing in a compromised physical state. But Gilmore has struggled. He has been the antithesis of a shutdown corner. Teams aren’t avoiding him. More and more, teams are throwing away from Leodis McKelvin and targeting Gilmore in coverage.
According to analysis by ProFootballFocus.com, Gilmore has been easily the most exploitable of the Bills’ three top corners this season. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 61 percent with a passer rating of 98.6 against Gilmore.
McKelvin, the eighth-most targeted cornerback in the league, has allowed only 49 percent completions for a 77.8 rating. Nickell Robey, the rookie nickel corner, has given up 49 percent and a passer rating of 58.6.
Gilmore generally follows the opponent’s top receiver in man-to-man coverage, so he has the tougher assignments. But a true shutdown corner takes No. 1 guys out of games. Tampa Bay’s Darrelle Revis, who will face the Bills on Sunday, has done it for years.
Of course, Gilmore is a physical corner. At 6-1, 190 pounds, he likes to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupt their patterns. That’s hard to do when you can’t push off as assertively with your surgically repaired left hand.
“That’s what I like to do, be physical and put my hands on receivers,” said Gilmore, who played at South Carolina. “Especially in this defense. It’s a man-to-man defense, so you have to stop the guy at the line. If you miss, it’s a touchdown. You’ve got to use your hands in this defense.”
Gilmore is a soft-spoken, humble sort away from the football field. He’s a proud, confident and aggressive player on it. It’s difficult for him to concede that the injury has affected his play, though he wouldn’t lie about it.
“I wouldn’t say I’m struggling with it,” Gilmore said. “But it’s just not as strong, not as strong as my right hand. I don’t know the percentages, but it’s not as strong. It does affect it, but it is what it is. I’m playing as hard as I can.”
Gilmore might have come back a little soon. He seemed tentative and slow to react to the ball. For the first two games back, he wore a bulky cast on his left forearm that looked like some weapon from “Game of Thrones.”
He battled through it, though. Teammates appreciate such things. A lot of Bills have played through injuries this season. C.J. Spiller comes to mind. The overall dropoff in Gilmore’s effectiveness has been equally apparent.
“It took courage,” said safety Da’Norris Searcy. “He was doing it for the team. To be out there with that club and still trying to play, it’s hard. It’s hard enough to do it with two good hands! So I know going out there with one is a huge disadvantage.”
Coach Doug Marrone said people don’t realize how difficult it is for a defensive back to come back from a broken wrist. It was also the first surgery of Gilmore’s football career.
“There’s not a player who has worked as hard on this football field as Stephon Gilmore,” Marrone said. “He’s working extremely hard to get better and to overcome those things.”
Gilmore, 24, is clearly a lot better than the guy we’ve seen in seven games since his return. But it’s fair for critics to wonder just how good a corner he really is, and whether it was premature to label him a shutdown corner based on the last half dozen or so games of his rookie season.
“It is what it is,” he said. “I don’t really care what people say. I know what I can do, and what I’m capable of doing. I’m doing what I can to help this team. Just going on the field with the guys makes me happy.”
There are four games left, a quarter of the season. Gilmore says he’s growing more comfortable every day. But he does look forward to next season, when he’ll be back to his old, healthy and aggressive form.
“Of course,” he said. “That’s the player I want to be. This will take time. But I’m going to finish this season strong, go into the offseason and work hard and study film of this past year and go from there.
“I’ll keep fighting and keep playing, because I know what I can do and no matter who lines up across from me, I feel like I can win every time.”
The way he sees it, he’ll be shutting people down soon enough. If he shuts down his critics, all the better.