You’ve got to have a thick skin to play cornerback in the NFL.
Inevitably, you’re going to get beat by the world’s best wide receivers from time to time – and you’re going to hear about it from fans when it happens.
“I think that’s very fair to say with the corner positions, the tackle positions and things of that nature,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said this week. “When you make a mistake, it’s going to be magnified.”
A prime example of that is Stephon Gilmore, the Bills’ third-year cornerback who has at times been a lightning rod for criticism this season.
After missing the season opener because of injury, Gilmore has played 90 percent of the snaps since he’s been back. According to the advanced statistics website Pro Football Focus, Gilmore has been targeted 42 times in 608 defensive snaps.
He’s given up 32 catches for 420 yards, an average of 13.1 yards per catch and five touchdowns, according to the website, while opposing quarterbacks have a 127.0 passer rating when throwing in Gilmore’s direction.
“People are not as concerned with the plays that are going on all the time and how many times you’re taking away the No. 1 read and it’s going someplace else,” Marrone said. “I think those things are difficult to see from a fan perspective or even a media perspective.”
Gilmore is ranked 30th by PFF among cornerbacks who have taken at least 50 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.
“I don’t care about criticism,” Gilmore said bluntly. “I know the position. I know you’re going to give up plays some time, you’ve just got to make some plays when you get the chance. I don’t care what anybody else says, I just go out there and play like I know how to play.
“Corner is, I think, one of the hardest positions on the defensive side of the ball,” he continued, “especially when you play it how we play it, a lot of man to man and stuff like that. You’ve got to keep a level head. Every corner that played the game – they’ll tell you the same thing. They know.”
Gilmore has two interceptions, 35 tackles and one forced fumble this season. PFF credits him with 10 “stops,” which it defines as “solo defensive tackles made which constitute an offensive failure.” He’s also been charged with five missed tackles, and has a positive grade in run support.
“He’s a ballplayer, man,” fellow Bills cornerback Corey Graham said of Gilmore. “He’s really good with his technique. He can pretty much play press against anybody. He’s only going to get better and better with time.”
Graham has noticed a difference in Gilmore as the season has progressed from a mental standpoint.
“Hearing the difference in him now, he knows more about the game of football,” he said. “He’s learning more and more as the days go by. … I definitely see that potential. His ability to learn what the offense is doing, if he continues to work, he’ll definitely have an opportunity to be that” franchise cornerback.
Gilmore in turn credits Graham for the leadership he’s brought to the Bills’ defensive backs room.
“Playing corner, you’ve got to be mentally strong, and he helped out a lot during the preseason,” Gilmore said. “I gave up a couple plays, and he kept telling me, ’You’ve got to learn how to brush it off and make the next play.’ That’s the nature of playing corner – you’ve got to keep a strong mind.”
Gilmore said he feels like the “game is slowing down” for him, a common refrain from athletes who are settling into a comfort zone on the field.
“I’m definitely getting there,” he said. “Just keep working, keep listening to coaches, and making plays. I’m seeing more formation recognition, so I think I’m getting there.”
The Bills’ focus over the next five weeks will be on trying to make a miracle run to the playoffs, starting with Sunday’s home game against the Cleveland Browns. But after the season, the team will need to start looking ahead to contract issues with players like Gilmore – who has one season left on his rookie contract.
Franchise-type cornerbacks command big money in the NFL, with the top 10 salaries at the position in 2014 averaging $10.15 million.
“I think everyone has a different definition of a No. 1. I’ve always felt that we’ve had two very good corners, whether someone wants to say whether they’re both No. 1s or not,” Marrone said, referring to Gilmore and the injured Leodis McKelvin. “Really, we have three with Corey. We’re fortunate, with Leodis’ injury, to put someone like Corey in there. We feel very good about our corners.”
That’s good, because the Bills will be tested by one of the NFL’s best receivers Sunday in Josh Gordon. After missing the first 10 games of the season due to suspension, Gordon returned in Week 12 and made eight catches for 120 yards. Marrone said from a skill standpoint, the Browns might present the biggest challenge the Bills have faced this season.
“Obviously they’re going to try and get him the ball a little bit more than they would any other receiver,” Gilmore said of Gordon. “It’s going to be a good matchup. I’m looking forward to it.”
Gilmore, though, said he doesn’t expect to shadow Gordon all game.
“I think I can do it, but it’s the coaches’ call,” he said. “I don’t really get into that. My goal is to shut the guys who come to my side down. If they wanted me to do that, like I said, I would do it.”
Even if he’s campaigning for the challenge, it’s not in Gilmore’s nature to state it publicly. He doesn’t fit the mold of the brash No. 1 cornerback like Deion Sanders or Richard Sherman.
“They’ve got different personalities,” Gilmore said. “I always looked at players like Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson. They never really talked about what they could do, they always just showed what they can do on the field. Their play spoke for itself.”
Gilmore hopes his does as well – loud and clear.