There’s something about covering tight ends that brings a different side out of New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
And that’s one reason why this weekend’s matchup between the Patriots and Las Vegas Raiders is so intriguing. Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, typically takes on the opposing team’s best wide receiver. The Raiders’ best wide receiver isn’t actually a receiver at all, it’s wideout-turned-tight end Darren Waller, who has the speed to play outside and the strength, at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, to play inline. He has 18 catches for 150 yards with a touchdown this season. He caught 12 passes for 105 yards with a score in Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints.
“He’s good and we’ve got something for him this weekend,” Patriots cornerback JC Jackson said Friday.
In rare occasions, Gilmore will cover a tight end. In his career with the Patriots, Gilmore has let up seven catches on 13 targets for 102 yards with an interception, two pass breakups and a 47.6 passer rating allowed to tight ends, per PFF.
The two most memorable performances Gilmore had against tight ends came against two of the best in the NFL.
Gilmore switched to cover Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce midway through the third quarter of 2018 AFC Championship Game and blanked him. After the Patriots’ win, Gilmore, who’s usually soft-spoken and complimentary of opponents, said it was “easier” to cover Kelce because “he’s not really fast.”
Gilmore also covered Eagles tight end Zach Ertz near the end of New England’s Week 11 win over Philadelphia last season. After the game, Gilmore repeated a similar sentiment saying he had to slow himself down because Ertz is slower than most wide receivers and tends to push off. Gilmore also said he knew he could rattle Ertz and send him “crying” to officials.
Waller might be a bigger challenge. Gilmore said Waller “knows how to get open” since he played wide receiver.
“It’s maybe the way he runs his routes,” Gilmore said. “You know, it’s not, like, it’s not slow like — some receivers like more bigger guys. He’s more leaner, can come at his breaks, so that’s what he does well.”
It’s unlikely that Gilmore would cover Waller all game. Waller has spent 84 of his 130 offensive snaps this season as an inline tight end. He’s played 25 snaps split out wide and 19 in the slot.
When Waller is lined up as a traditional tight end, then it’s most likely that a safety — one of Joejuan Williams, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Terrence Brooks or Devin McCourty — will cover him. When Waller splits out or plays in the slot, then Gilmore could follow him, however. The Patriots also have used Jackson against Kelce in the past. The Patriots could also stick a cornerback on Waller in critical situations.
The Raiders’ second-leading receiver is running back Josh Jacobs. Rookie wideout Henry Ruggs, who was ruled out for Week 3 with a hamstring injury, is third on the team with 59 receiving yards and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow is third on the team with five catches. Rookie Bryant Edwards, with three catches for 51 yards, and veteran Nelson Agholor, with two catches for 42 yards, round out the Raiders’ wide receiver corps. There’s not an otherwise obvious matchup for Gilmore on the Raiders’ roster.
“They use him so many different ways, you’re not going to get a true bead on it,” Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty said Friday. “But it’s just understanding awareness and how he can hurt you and knowing that we all have to be alert. It’s not like a, ‘This guy’s going to go take Waller and take him out of the game.’ It won’t be like that. It’ll be a team effort. …
“There’s going to be multiple guys that end up on him just because of where he aligns in their offense. And I think the biggest thing when you play great players like this, it’s just awareness. It’s guys knowing where he is and it’s not forgetting the other guys.”
McCourty compared Waller to former-NFL wide receivers like Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week that Waller is more than just a big receiver, though.
“I think it’s been such a long time since we’ve seen a guy like this,” Belichick said. “He’s got all the skills that can come inside.”
Don’t be shocked if Gilmore covers Waller in certain situations. It would be surprising if Gilmore is glued to the big tight end all game, however.