By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — To be sure, the task of selecting the very best, most impactful defensive player in the entire NFL is a bit of an impossible task. And when it comes to making that choice, there are a number of big-name, big-time players worthy of the honor for 2019, from Aaron Donald to Minkah Fitzpatrick to T.J. Watt to Nick Bosa.
But if the voters were to deem Stephon Gilmore as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year for 2019, they most certainly would not be wrong.
The best corner in the NFL, playing on the best defense in the NFL, furthered his case for the award on Sunday, picking off two Andy Dalton passes and returning one of them for an interception.
He now has two defensive touchdowns this season, after entering the year without any on his resume. And he also leads the league with six interceptions.
Despite the two-interception day, and despite the 34-13 victory, Gilmore wasn’t entirely elated after the game.
“I should have had three [interceptions],” Gilmore lamented, before quickly correcting himself. “I should’ve had four.”
Gilmore didn’t have four, which would have tied the all-time NFL record, but he nevertheless provided the momentum-turning plays that the Patriots needed in a game that was far too tight at halftime.
With the Patriots holding a 13-10 lead, the Bengals received the ball to start the third quarter, looking to recapture that lead. Those hopes didn’t last long, as Dalton’s pass to Tyler Boyd never had a chance of being completed, thanks to Gilmore.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 15, 2019
“Kind of knew the route. Kind of got me off the line, but I knew the route, so I undercut it and made a good play,” Gilmore explained. “He threw it outside, and I had to alter my body like that to make a play.”
Seven plays later, Tom Brady connected with N’Keal Harry for a touchdown, stretching the New England lead to 20-10.
Looking to regain their footing, the Bengals embarked on their next drive, moving the ball 47 yards on five plays. Dalton, though, made the mistake of throwing the ball in Gilmore’s direction again. Once again, Gilmore made it hurt.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 15, 2019
“I kind of knew the route, too,” Gilmore said of his second pick. “I was able to jump it. We had a blitz coverage, so I knew that the pressure was going to get there, and I was able to make the play.”
While Gilmore’s dominance is self-evident, here’s some perspective anyway. Through 14 games this season, he’s given up zero touchdowns. Meanwhile, he’s scored two touchdowns himself.
In an era where the rules favor the passing game, restricting contact from defensive backs to receivers and often giving the benefit of the doubt to the offensive player whenever downfield contact occurs, this type of sustained performance by a cornerback is the rarest of the rare.
Despite that, passes still continue to fly Gilmore’s way. The cornerback continues to answer every test.
After Sunday’s game, Gilmore not only led the league in interceptions but also owned the NFL lead in passes defensed, with 18.
Unsurprisingly, the latest performance led to plenty of praise from Gilmore’s teammates.
“I mean, the guy’s been on point every week,” captain Devin McCourty said. “Just his leadership by his play today, each time they came his way, just being ready, making a play. And we needed it today.”
“Gilly’s showing you what he is,” Julian Edelman said. “That dude’s All-Pro, unbelievable football player.”
Duron Harmon was as surprised as anyone the #Bengals kept throwing at Stephon Gilmore.
“On the sideline I was like, ‘Does he know he’s an All-Pro corner, best corner in the league?’” pic.twitter.com/rPECmMXnaX
— Andrew Callahan (@_AndrewCallahan) December 15, 2019
The praise from head coach Bill Belichick was a bit more understated, as Belichick noted, “He’s playing well.” But the way that the New England defense utilizes and relies on Gilmore to be nearly perfect every single week says all that needs to be said about the head coach’s feelings toward his All-Pro cornerback.
Quarterbacks have a 0:7 TD:INT ratio when targeting Stephon Gilmore in coverage since the Super Bowl.
That's 14+ weeks of football lining up against, among others, DeAndre Hopkins, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Brandin Cooks, Robby Anderson, Odell Beckham Jr., Zach Ertz, Amari Cooper…
— Tucker Boynton (@Tucker_TnL) December 15, 2019
Again, there are cases to be made for other players. Donald has 11 sacks, 18 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Fitzpatrick, with his five picks, has played a massive role in turning around the season for the Pittsburgh defense. Watt has a league-leading 12.5 sacks and five forced fumbles (with three recoveries) on that Pittsburgh defense, along with 29 quarterback hits.
A vote for those players would not be a wrong vote, because, again, the exercise is a bit impossible.
Nevertheless, if Gilmore is to finish the season with an exclamation point or two against Buffalo and Miami, and if the Patriots’ defense is to finish the year with one of the best statistical regular seasons in history, then a good number of those 50 voters ought to give some serious consideration to Gilmore’s body of work.
The award has not often gone to corners, as Charles Woodson in 2009 was the only cornerback to win the award between 1995 and 2018. Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson won the award in 1994 and 1993, respectively, while Lester Hayes (1980) and Mel Blount (1975) are the only other cornerbacks to have won the award in its 47-year history. Over the past three decades, numerous cornerbacks have been considered to be the best of their era or even the best of all time, including Darrelle Revis, Champ Bailey, Ty Law, Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and probably a dozen or so people who would want to be included on that list. None of those players was deemed great enough to win a Defensive Player of the Year, so perhaps expectations for Gilmore in 2019 should be adjusted.
The historical odds may be against him, but, well, Gilmore’s performance this season has been historic.