Stephon Gilmore isn't a star.
In a league that glorifies the attention-craved cornerbacks and their proclamations of grandeur, the 24-year-old has essentially no standing among the national media. Playing for the Buffalo Bills plays a major role in that, but the 10th overall pick of the 2012 draft also hasn't truly established himself yet.
The primary reason for Gilmore's muted status has been his health. After an impressive rookie season, the cornerback endured two injury-hit years in 2013 and 2014.
At the start of 2013, he suffered a fractured wrist. That injury cost him the first five games of the regular season, but maybe more significant was the club he was forced to play with when he returned. Offseason hip surgery followed the 2013 season and issues appeared to linger into the beginning of the 2014 regular season.
Gilmore missed the first game of the season and was rotated in and out of the lineup in Week 2 and Week 3. A groin injury had cost him his first appearance of the year, but it appeared to be his hip that was limiting his movement after that point.
He eventually returned to form, but missing another game at the end of the year and being initially limited prevented him from building his reputation. Furthermore, the identity of the Bills defense under Jim Schwartz meant that Gilmore wasn't ever really put in position to draw attention.
The Bills defensive line is so dominant that the Bills rarely ever blitz. According to Football Outsiders, the Bills blitzed on 16.2 percent of their snaps in 2014, a number that ranked them 30th in the NFL.
Measuring how often a team blitzes is important for judging cornerback play. The reason for that is when a team can get pressure with just four defenders, it can crowd the coverage on the back end. This allows defensive backs to sit in zone coverage or play man coverage with more safety help.
In simple terms, it tightens the field for a position that is more difficult the more space it is played in.
In 2015, the Bills are expected to blitz more. Rex Ryan had a less talented defensive line with the New York Jets, but it was still one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Despite that, Football Outsiders ranked the Jets 13th in blitz percentage with a 23.6 percent rating.
The Jets lacked having the edge-rushers of the Bills, but Ryan's philosophical profile has always included diverse and heavy blitz packages. That is expected to continue in Buffalo now that he is the Bills head coach.
At least, Gilmore is expecting it to, per Vic Carucci of BuffaloNews.com. “I’m glad we’ve got Rex Ryan. I think they’ll be sending a lot of blitzes up front. It’s going to allow me to show the world what I can do on the back end, playing a lot of man-to-man and doing what I do.”
Playing behind blitzes is simple math. With more players being sent after the quarterback, there are fewer left in coverage. Cornerbacks can't receive as much safety or linebacker help because those players are being used elsewhere.
As the team's most talented cornerback, Gilmore is less likely to receive help than anyone else on the field. Ryan has already identified Gilmore as his team's best cornerback, but in typical Ryan fashion, he took it one step further.
Speaking to WGR550, per Joe Buscaglia, Ryan waxed poetically about his cornerback. “Gilmore is going to be one of the elite…corners in this league. I believe that. Where people miss it sometimes is, how many balls get caught on him? They don't complete passes on him.”
Even though Ryan has a tendency to go overboard in his positive statements, this statement is based in some form of reality. When Ryan discusses any of his cornerbacks in the realm of ranking among the best in the league, comparisons to one player inevitably arrive.
Darrelle Revis played the best football of his career under Ryan in New York. Ryan asked him to do more than any other cornerback across the league.
Not only did Revis play in Ryan's blitz-heavy system that put his cornerbacks in space and press-man coverage on a snap-by-snap basis, he routinely followed the opposition's best receiver while not receiving any linebacker or safety help.
The question for the Bills is if Gilmore can replicate what Revis did or if the Bills should just treat him like any other cornerback on their roster. To figure that out, we must delve deep into analysis of his snaps in coverage last season.
Explaining the Process
Plays that count:
- Every snap that has the cornerback in man coverage, no matter where the ball is thrown.
- The above includes sacks, quarterback scrambles and plays where the defensive back has safety help.
- Every snap in zone coverage where a one-on-one situation is naturally created. For example, a sideline route from a wide receiver who lined up directly across from the cornerback when that cornerback is covering the deep third in Cover 3.
Plays that don’t count:
- Screen plays. Even if the receiver isn't part of the screen, these plays do not count.
- Plays where either the receiver or cornerback doesn't follow through his whole assignment.
- Zone plays that don't create one-on-one situations. Any ambiguity in this area will disqualify a play.
- Any prevent coverage situations.
- Receptions in the flat without a route run.
- Running plays, including designed quarterback runs.
The ball does not have to be thrown in the defensive back’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is not an analysis of how many completions the cornerback allowed—that can be found elsewhere—this is an analysis of how good his coverage is on any given play.
Failed coverages can come at any point of the route, but it is subjective to where the players are on the field in relation to the quarterback. Typically, defensive backs must be within arm's reach for underneath/intermediate routes. On deeper passes, there is greater leeway given to the defender.
Failed coverages can be subjective. They must be determined by the situation considering the length of the play and other such variables.
This category is reserved for those plays when receivers would have to make superhuman catches to beat the coverage. The best example of this is when receivers line up wide and try to run down the sideline, but the defensive back gradually guides them toward the sideline, suffocating the space they have in which to catch the football. If a receiver is on the white sideline, he is shut down.
This is the opposite of a failed coverage. In order to be "In Position," a defensive back has to be in a position to prevent a relatively well-thrown pass to his assignment.
|No.||Receiver||Successful Snaps/Total Snaps||Success Rate|
|Analytical Analysis through NFL.com|
Only receivers with at least four qualifying snaps against Gilmore were included on this chart.
|Opponent||Qualifying Snaps||In Position||Failed Coverages|
|San Diego Chargers||9||8||1|
|New England Patriots||15||11||4|
|New York Jets||19||16||3|
|Kansas City Chiefs||20||19||1|
|New York Jets||12||10||2|
|Green Bay Packers||18||15||3|
|Analytical Analysis through NFL.com|
For the season as a whole, Gilmore had a 80.6 percent success rate. The raw numbers don't tell us enough about his situation to truly gauge how good Gilmore was last season, but in comparison to other cornerbacks it's a very impressive success rate.
Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant is forcing his way to the elite level of NFL cornerbacks. He finished last season with a 76.6 percent success rate. Richard Sherman was at 78.9 percent, while Darrelle Revis suffered a significant decline from the previous year, notching a 72.5 percent success rate in 2014 after a 81.9 percent rate in 2013.
Generally, a rating of 75 percent or above is tough to achieve.
In 2013, Joe Haden of the Cleveland Browns posted a 62.8 percent success rate. That came after he posted a 73.6 percent success rate in 2012. Patrick Peterson didn't crack 70 percent over those two seasons, finishing 2013 with a 62.9 percent success rate and 2014 with a 69.6 percent success rate.
A number of different factors must be addressed to truly examine the quality of Gilmore's coverage in 2014. It's impossible to know how healthy he was each week, but we can understand how he fit in a favorable defensive situation and examine the quality/style of the receivers he faced.
Gilmore is 6'1" and 190 pounds. He's not as big as Sherman, but he should definitely be classified as a big cornerback. Despite his size, he is a fluid, quick athlete with the long speed to comfortably run with most receivers in the league.
That size and speed combination is very important for how Gilmore plays.
|Analytical Analysis through NFL.com|
Like most taller cornerbacks, Gilmore is much more adept at covering vertical routes than horizontal routes. His ability to run with receivers in a straight line and his length to win the ball at the catch point makes him effective against bigger receivers, while he can use his bulk to lean on smaller receivers and redirect them.
His bump-and-run style puts pressure on him to maintain his balance through routes by relying on his footwork. Gilmore doesn't excel working laterally, but his footwork to mirror receivers is often evident.
On this play against the San Diego Chargers, Malcom Floyd is Gilmore's assignment. Floyd is a long receiver who sets up his deep routes as well as anyone in the NFL. Even though Gilmore is lined up in press coverage, he doesn't look to initiate contact with the receiver at the snap.
Instead, he attempts to mirror Floyd's movement. Floyd is very patient, making short and sharp movements to draw a commitment from Gilmore. The cornerback shows off incredible patience to force Floyd to make a more defined, elongated movement.
Floyd is trying to run a deep post route and by holding up for so long, Gilmore has already disrupted the route.
The receiver eventually makes that hard cut, and he succeeds in getting Gilmore to react. Gilmore loses his balance for a moment as he attempts to stay on top of Floyd's hard step infield. This gives Floyd a window to get past his outside shoulder.
Although Floyd is a good athlete, Gilmore's athleticism kicked in at this point and allowed him to quickly transition from a susceptible position to a perfect position. From there, he ran downfield on Floyd's inside shoulder.
Bowe angles his stem slightly toward the sideline, causing Gilmore to drift outside initially. At the perfect time, Bowe plants his foot and attacks infield, causing Gilmore to swing his feet and follow the receiver aggressively.
Even though Bowe got Gilmore to bite on his in-breaking route, Gilmore was able to immediately react when he turned upfield. Instead of turning with the receiver, Gilmore broke around the opposite way before adjusting his feet and shuffling for a moment so he was on top of Bowe.
Gilmore completely shut down the receiver's route by staying on top of him with his eyes back on the quarterback. Alex Smith threw the ball downfield, but he essentially threw it away because the ball was more than five yards away from the receiver.
If he hadn't overthrown it, the ball was more likely to be intercepted by Gilmore than caught by Bowe unless it was thrown to the back shoulder.
Beating Gilmore deep by relying on route running early in routes is very difficult. He is too fluid and too quick for a player with his athleticism and size. His movement ability on vertical routes is complemented by his strength to hold his position when receivers challenge his aggressive coverage style.
Unsurprisingly, Gilmore's skill set makes him much better in press coverage than off coverage.
|Analytical Analysis through NFL.com|
Gilmore played a lot of press coverage last year, but Ryan should limit his snaps in off coverage as much as possible next year. Ryan generally likes to be aggressive in everything he does, so putting his cornerbacks in press coverage is nothing he fears.
The disparity between Gilmore's success in press coverage and his struggles in off coverage boil down to aggressiveness.
He is a naturally aggressive player who is always trying to run routes for his receivers and find the football ahead of them. In press-man coverage, Gilmore can rely on his athleticism and reaction speed to redirect after biting too aggressively on the movements of his assignment.
In off coverage, it's much more difficult to cover that aggressiveness because the cornerback has more space to make up, and he can't use his body to act as an obstacle.
This touchdown reception that Gilmore gives up to Golden Tate of the Detroit Lions is an excellent example of his aggressiveness. He is going to be left isolated in space against the receiver. Tate runs directly toward Gilmore initially, before bending his route toward the outside slightly.
Tate's movement causes Gilmore to shuffle his weight to the outside initially before following with his feet.
Gilmore didn't have help inside of him, so he couldn't justify overplaying the deep out route. Tate only needed to hint that he was running an out route for Gilmore to put himself in line with the receiver's outside shoulder. Instead of voluntarily putting himself there that early in the route, Gilmore should have shown more patience.
He should have waited a touch longer to commit to the deep out route. If he had done that, he could have turned with Tate rather than anticipating to run the route for the receiver.
Because of Gilmore's aggressiveness, Tate was able to easily turn back infield. From there, he curled the top of his route to face his quarterback for a simple touchdown reception. This play came late in the first quarter, on a 3rd-and-8. The Bills didn't need Gilmore to create a turnover, so his aggressiveness didn't even have the faint logic to support it.
It's unlikely that Ryan can make Gilmore a less aggressive player in situations such as this one. Players typically play a certain way, and it can only be harnessed to a degree before it has a negative impact.
What Ryan should be able to do is make Gilmore an even better press cornerback.
Despite his size and overall athleticism, Gilmore struggles when initiating contact with receivers at the line of scrimmage. Over and over again throughout last season, he attempted to disrupt receivers in their releases, only succeeding in creating easy space for them to run past him.
Receivers were repeatedly able to brush Gilmore's extended hands to the side or swim over him because of his recklessness. Ryan needs to teach him how to be aggressive while keeping his feet on the ground to maintain balance.
Lunging forward makes it too easy for even limited receivers to come free from the start of a given play.
Considering how effective Gilmore is when he looks to just mirror receivers instead of initiating contact at the snap, he doesn't necessarily need to improve in this area. However, if he does it will add another dimension to his press coverage and make him an even tougher defender to beat.
Playing press coverage that well as a boundary corner will be enough to make Gilmore one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He doesn't need to move around the field to be a shutdown player, but if he truly wants to fill the Revis role, then he will need to prove that he can be effective in the slot and on the left side.
|Analytical Analysis through NFL.com|
Gilmore's sample isn't big enough to determine if he can be effective in the slot or on the opposite boundary. His skill set suggests that he should stay outside, though. Gilmore didn't face a great caliber of receiver in 2014, but when he did struggle with assignments, it was generally because of quickness.
He isn't slow by any measure, but when you move inside you typically face quicker receivers who can take advantage of the added space to either side of the cornerback.
Asking Gilmore to line up in the slot against specific receivers shouldn't be an issue, but asking him to cover the top slot receivers in the NFL will be an adventure. Gilmore could obviously thrive in that role, but he just needs to prove himself because the tiny sample to this point is inconclusive.
Rex Ryan was a peculiar hire for the Bills for a couple of reasons.
Most significantly, Ryan is noted for his inability on the offensive side of the ball, and he has a bad track record with quarterbacks. The Bills desperately needed help on the offensive side, while their defense can't really get much better than it already is.
Furthermore, Ryan's philosophy clashes with the strengths of the Bills' defensive personnel. Four dominant defensive linemen should make you a cautious defense that sits back instead of blitzing. Ryan's personality suggests that he won't run that kind of defense.
Regardless of what he does with the team as a whole, Ryan should be good for Gilmore. Even though Ryan failed to develop players such as Kyle Wilson and Dee Milliner in New York, neither of those players ever showed off the talent that Gilmore has shown in Buffalo.
The cornerback doesn't need to be Darrelle Revis, either in style or quality, to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He is already looking to force his way onto that level, and now he is entering the prime of his career.
For all of his deficiencies with offensive pieces, there may not be a better coach in the NFL to guide Gilmore through his prime than Ryan.