The New England Patriots just won the Super Bowl for the sixth time, tying the Pittsburgh Steelers for most by a franchise in National Football League history. They did so not on the back of their Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, but by dominating the Los Angeles Rams with defense, defense, and more defense.
Todd Gurley and the second-ranked Rams offense were no match for the Patriots defense as they put up only 260 yards and 3 points. Offensive genius Sean McVay couldn’t figure out how to penetrate the Patriots defense at any point in the game, and it resulted in the lowest scoring output in McVay’s history with the Rams. Championship caliber defenses are usually led by champion caliber players and this time was no different.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was not just an elite player this year, but one of the best players in the entire National Football League on either side of the ball. Making the All-Pro team means you were voted as the best at your position in the game and Gilmore made first-team All-Pro this year behind an incredible season. He was second in the NFL with 20 passes defensed and allowed a measly 56.3 passer rating and 42 percent completion percentage when targeted, all while he was tasked with shadowing the other team’s best wide receiver for large portions of the games.
For the first time in his career, Gilmore has had the benefit of playing for the same coach and under the same scheme for more than one year. An abundance of coaches in Buffalo, where Gilmore spent his first five seasons, led to the players constantly learning new technique, verbiage, roles, and rules within the new schemes. Working in Bill Belichick’s defense for two seasons now has allowed the All-Pro cornerback to fully understand what he is supposed to do on each play and just react instead of thinking too much. Belichick spoke to the Boston Globe earlier in the year regarding Gilmore:
“I think he’s continued to improve for us as he’s gotten more familiar with our scheme, and also I think we were able to utilize him in ways that are more advantageous to him…He’s playing with a lot of confidence, playing with good technique and just the second year has helped, like it usually does with most players.”
Not only has playing in the same scheme helped Gilmore, but his study habits have improved over his time in New England as well. When speaking to the Boston Globe, Gilmore touched on his film study,
“The older you get the more you understand, the better you go about studying the film and you get smarter, obviously, the more and more you play. I think I have gotten better at studying film and knowing what the offenses are doing.”
Super Bowl LIII was a “boring” one if you ask most fans today. The NFL has become a league where offense reigns supreme. We see rule changes, new innovative schemes, and an increase in different styles of offensive weapons each year; points equal excitement.
Fans always prefer back-and-forth shootouts to low scoring slobberknockers, and we see that NFL likes to play on that reality in their awards each year. The NFL MVP award has been given to a defensive player only twice in history, and Super Bowl MVP has been given to a defensive player only nine times in the 53 games. This year was no different with Patriots WR Julian Edelman winning this year’s Super Bowl MVP with the impressive stat line of ten receptions for 141 yards. But, it should have gone to Gilmore.
To start, the Patriots scored just 13 points. On their three scoring drives, Edelman only caught three passes. Gronkowski played a more important role in those scoring drives than the MVP of the game. Edelman’s biggest role came in moving the chains and therefore field position. You could argue that Patriots punter Ryan Allen was just as important to the game as Edelman. Now I won’t say that a punter deserves to be MVP, but you get my idea.
If you want to go deeper, the real MVP of the game was the entire Patriots defense, Bill Belichick, and defensive play-caller Brian Flores — but the award usually goes to a single player, and I believe the most deserving was Gilmore.
Brandin Cooks is one of the fastest and most explosive playmakers in the entire NFL. The Patriots should know. He was on the team just last year before a trade with the Rams. Gilmore followed Cooks throughout most of the game and held him under his normal yards per target and catch percentage, even though Cooks was targeted more than any other game of the year with 13 targets. Goff looked to Cooks on back-to-back plays when the game mattered most, and Gilmore made the play both times.
Elite level of play from the cornerback position isn’t always easy to see when looking at a stat line, but Gilmore was first in the game in passes defensed with three, tied for 2nd in solo tackles with 5, forced a fumble that ultimately went out of bounds, and had what ended up being the game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter.
The play before the interception was a great go route up the sideline from Cooks and a great pass from Goff that would have resulted in a touchdown except for a great play by Gilmore. In basketball, I often have this saying when my teammate plays great defense, but the opposition’s shot goes in anyways: “great defense, better offense.”
In this case, it was reversed. There was great offense, but better defense. Gilmore stayed close to Cooks’ hip and gave a slight, inconspicuous pull of Cooks’ left arm to make the catch much harder. Technically, the pull of the arm is pass interference, but Gilmore was smart enough to not make it obvious in the moment by pulling the arm that was not in view of the corner referee. Safety Duron Harmon came over and laid a hit on Cooks to help jar the ball lose, but if not for Gilmore’s veteran move, Cooks is likely to make the catch, and the game would have been tied.
The interception on the next play was one Gilmore will never forget. The Patriots sent an “all out” blitz at Goff, and he chucked one deep to Cooks again, only this time there was no great offensive play by either player. Gilmore was playing off coverage and read Goff like a book. As soon as he saw the ball go up, he knew he had it. Gilmore was elated after the game saying,
“I just knew I couldn’t drop it. I saw it the whole time and I knew Jared Goff was going to chuck it up. It was probably one of the easiest picks I’ve had all year… It’s a great feeling.”
Easy or not, Gilmore’s interception to help seal the win was as important a play as there was in the game. The play, and Gilmore’s whole game won’t receive the attention that Malcolm Butler’s interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks will get, but it should.
The game ended as the lowest scoring Super Bowl in history with just sixteen total points and somehow an offensive player gets the MVP? This game was dominated by defense, and the best defender on the field deserved to hoist that MVP award. Stephon Gilmore, you were that defender.