PITTSFORD – This is his calm before the storm. Stephon Gilmore’s world is so quiet at St. John Fisher College.
After a morning walkthrough, the Buffalo Bills cornerback slides into the driver’s seat of a vacant John Deere, underneath a lip of shade outside the locker room. Starting Sept. 13, all eyes will be on him. The plan is for Gilmore to match up on the No. 1 wide receiver every week.
Pressure? No pressure.
“I’ll just play the game I know how to play,” Gilmore says. “It’s still football. I’m getting smarter, mentally and physically. Just play football. There’s no pressure.
“I think I can do it.”
Gilmore corrects himself.
“I know I can do it.”
Dreads flowing, beard growing, Gilmore epitomizes cool. He speaks in a breezy confidence.
You’d never tell he’s the key to coach Rex Ryan’s entire defense. But right here is Ryan’s new Darrelle Revis. When he heard about the hire, Gilmore was overwhelmed with excitement. Instantly. He has admired Revis’ game for years – and he wants to take his game to that level.
So for one hour, Gilmore explains how he does his job, how he plans on doing this.
Playing cornerback demands supreme athleticism, yet obsessive attention to detail. It has him secluded in a bedroom, for hours, watching film. It crushes a weaker mind. It’s getting tougher, annually, with each tweak of the rules. Now, Gilmore faces No. 1’s exclusively.
No sweat. He holds his gaze.
“I’m up to the challenge,” Gilmore said. “Whoever they put me on is who I’m going to get and I’m going to give 100 percent every time.”
This is a mano-a-mano position. You vs. Him. Cornerback breeds outlandish personalities.
Cockiness is more fuel than detriment.
Take two of the best: Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson. Last year, they waged a Twitter war for the ages. First, Peterson celebrated his contract extension with Arizona. Sherman retweeted the number of touchdowns Peterson allowed in 2013. Peterson responded with “Last I check a lockdown corner is when it’s him and WR” – a shot at Sherman sticking to one side of the field.
Then, flashing his Super Bowl ring, Sherman sniped back, “lockdown everywhere but the field” with a graphic of their stats side by side.
Gilmore? On Aug. 3, he tweeted a photo of his son strapped around his chest at the grocery store.
He’s brash as a librarian.
“A lot of those guys are just trying to get some publicity and that’s not me,” Gilmore said. “I look at guys like Champ Bailey – the guys who have done it for a long time – and they never had to do that. They let their play do the talking. … You don’t have to brag on yourself if you know what the film says.”
But isn’t such an attitude needed? Desired?
Maybe for these two, Gilmore says. But he sees a value in a calm demeanor. Most cornerbacks are rarely ever burned in high school, in college. Once they’re toasted in the NFL, he explains, they “get rattled.” Suddenly, they’re buried in self-doubt. One mistake leads to another, to another, to unemployment.
“You have to poise yourself and not be jittery,” Gilmore said, “so you’ll be in a position to make plays. A lot of times, you’re on an island but if you’re more relaxed in your mind, it’ll make it easier to make plays.
“I had to find that spot in my head to just forget about it and keep playing.”
He’ll talk trash – occasionally – during a game. Never publicly. The oldest of six kids, Gilmore has always been a well-mannered family man. Yet he makes the differentiation: calm is not synonymous with passive.
Gilmore finds other ways to get himself going.
“If I can be the best corner I can be – I can be the best corner,” he says. “What drives me is I love playing the game. I love it. Some people just play it because they’re good at it. It’s something I love doing. I want to be perfect.”
That pursuit of perfection leads Gilmore, first, to the film.
This fall, Stephon Gilmore will return home from One Bills Drive at around 6 p.m. He’ll kiss the wife. Play with his 5-month-old son.
Then, he’ll head to his office.
The team’s iPad playbook is already near-surgically attached to his hand. Teammates always see Gilmore thumbing through plays during the day. But this is where Gilmore also finds his edge. From 7-10 p.m., he’ll break down film on a projector screen at his home.
His wife, Gabrielle, knows the drill. He’s been this way since they started dating his freshman year of college.
“She understands,” Gilmore said. “She knows how much I love the game and how good, how great I want to be.”
Gilmore clicks play and each snap, he explains, “tells you a story.” The receiver’s release. His feet. His hands. His rate of acceleration. How it all fits within a route, a formation.
“And if you watch it a million times,” Gilmore said, “you’ll catch onto it.”
On Monday and Tuesday, Gilmore studies that team’s first- and second-down plays. Then, he works to third down. Then, two-minute drill plays. He’ll rip through a compilation of all throws to a specific wide receiver. All week, Gilmore is a scientist relentlessly pursuing his eureka moment.
Take Buffalo’s 24-17 loss at Denver last season when they held Peyton Manning to a season-low 56.9 passer rating.
Mid-play, covering Demaryius Thomas, Gilmore’s mind flashed back to a route he saw from the Bills’ scout team on film. He knew that in this third-and-long situation, Thomas would run an out and up.
So Gilmore jammed Thomas on the “out” at 6 yards to disrupt timing, ran, turned and – eureka – the ball was there.
“It just clicked, like, ‘Are they really about to do this?’ ” Gilmore said. “The difference between making the play or not is not second-guessing. It’s about just believing and going. A lot of times corners don’t make the play because they second-guess or they don’t believe what they study.”
And Gilmore studies. A lot. This larger projector screen magnifies his attention to detail. If he has one fear, it’s being unprepared. In college, he’d stay up for hours studying for a test.
“You can’t go into the test blind,” Gilmore said, “because you won’t know what’s going on.”
Because once the ball is snapped, he’s on his own.
Stevie Johnson was embarrassing the rookie.
Snap after snap, in 2012, Gilmore stepped up to press Buffalo’s No. 1 wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. Snap after snap, Johnson shredded him. This 10th overall pick was painfully predictable his first training camp.
So Johnson let him know.
“You’ve got to switch it up sometimes,” Johnson told him. “You’ve got to do something to make me think twice.”
Press at 1 yard. Play off 5-7 yards. Fake off coverage into press. Vice versa. Fake zone coverage into man. Vice versa. If he’s part scientist, Gilmore also learned to be part baseball pitcher. He couldn’t throw heaters all game.
Game day – test day – is far more complicated than fans realize. Gilmore must read that “story” he studied in milliseconds.
First, before the snap, Gilmore takes a snapshot image in his mind. He sees how the receivers line up, their splits, computes the down and distance and thinks back to all routes run in this exact situation.
Usually, if he’s one-on-one out wide, Gilmore will press. If his receiver lines up in tight and/or bunches with other receivers, he’ll back off to “see what I’m going to get.” And if the opposition has 10-plus yards to go, Gilmore backs up, too. He’s OK with you catching a short pass.
Gilmore has this option.
As a 6-foot-1 corner, he prefers a “wider” stance and keeps his hands up so he can “punch every time.”
Then, the ball is snapped.
In off coverage, he reads the quarterback first to see if it’s a three-step drop. If it is, Gilmore knows that ball is coming out fast. In press, his eyes are locked on the receiver.
To this day, he remembers Johnson’s advice. He has “three or four” go-to moves. At times, he’ll act like he’s in press and “bail.”
“The good receivers are going to switch their game up and get off the line,” he said. “But if you always keep them thinking, it’s hard. It’s hard for them.”
And, in reality, most plays are won or lost in 5 yards. Gilmore has 5 yards, 5 glorious yards, to be physical. After this – especially with the NFL’s renewed, maddening emphasis on illegal contact – there’s not much he can do.
But, of course, this is a mind game. Many receivers shimmy off the line, Gilmore said. Their feet “go wide” in a pause.
“Just to see what you’re doing and get you all jittery, to panic, and then they go.”
So he must stay calm. This is how Revis reached six Pro Bowls.
The lazy hot take is that Revis excels by always jamming receivers at the line. Not true. He’s the most patient cornerback in the game. He turns those precious 5 yards into a mind game. Revis forces the receiver to tip his hand first.
“He waits,” Gilmore said. “He inches back a little bit and then he gets you. It may not be at the beginning. It may not be at 1 or 2 yards. It may be at 5 or 6.”
Beyond 5 yards? Receivers push off. Hand check. Get away with robbery.
That’s where athleticism must take over.
He doesn’t hesitate. If Gilmore stuck with it, he’s sure he would’ve been a college basketball player.
As a junior at South Pointe High School in Rock Hill, S.C., he averaged 24 points per game. At point guard, he attacked the rim. Gilmore never played as a senior, instead enrolling early at South Carolina for spring football practice.
One more season and Gilmore believes those D-I offers would’ve filled his mailbox. He actually drew interest from N.C. State.
Instead, his basketball skills transferred perfectly to cornerback.
“Especially playing defense,” Gilmore said. “It’s like playing ... basketball, you’ve got to stay in front of him. You’ve got to beat him to a spot.
“When you’re athletic, you can get away with a lot of stuff.”
Beyond those 5 yards, Gilmore might get caught in an awkward position.
Now, more than ever, athletic corners are at a premium. There were 450 combined pass interference/holding penalties on defense last season. Five years prior? Only 299. With Commissioner Roger Goodell infatuated with points, with offense, with a flag football-like vision, this trend will go only one direction, too.
Thus, the physical mauler at cornerback is now archaic.
Gilmore’s 4.40 speed in the 40-yard dash, his 36-inch vertical, his basketball-like reaction skills are a necessity. Much of this, he admits, is “gifted.” But he also trained as early as 12, 13 years old on a high school field with his dad. For one hour, three days a week, he backpedaled, ran gassers and caught passes.
As a pro, he has trained in Boca Raton, Fla., and, now, Charlotte, N.C., with close friend Jonathan Joseph. Gilmore grew up watching Joseph in Rock Hill, and 10 NFL seasons in, Joseph is still playing. The sessions are intense. Competitive. This summer brought a new purpose.
Gilmore will now play on both sides of the field.
Sure, Sherman may be the best, but he never migrates to the other side of the field. He masterfully baits receivers into a personal trap along the boundary, there for the interception if a quarterback dares to throw at him.
So not only must Gilmore now track No. 1 receivers all game, he says everything on the other side “flips.” The footwork. His vision. The routes are all different. When he switches sides, he feels like an American tourist in Europe.
“It’s kind of like driving a car,” Gilmore said. “If the wheel’s on the other side, it’s different. … Just getting used to flipping and getting my mind used to flipping back and forth playing both sides.”
In Year Four, however, he insists he’s ready.
Said Gilmore, “It’s time.”
The trial run was full of glitches in training camp. Sammy Watkins dominated Gilmore at times. And there are certainly Watkins-like talents on this schedule.
T.Y. Hilton. Odell Beckham Jr. A.J. Green. Dez Bryant. Jeremy Maclin.
For Ryan’s defense to work, cornerbacks must eliminate a team’s best wide receiver from the game. Then, he can get creative up front. The playbook opens up when he doesn’t need to baby a corner with safety help.
Revis shoots Gilmore the occasional text. He asked the corner how he likes Rex – “Love him,” Gilmore texted back. The two haven’t talked shop; they have talked junk. Sort of. When Gilmore hung out with a mutual friend in July, the friend dialed Revis on FaceTime and shouted “He says he’s better than you!”
Gilmore laughed. Revis laughed. And that’s about as malicious as it’ll ever get with Buffalo’s top cornerback.
He’s too busy perfecting a craft, too immersed. If he delivers in 2015 – in Rex’s schedule, in Revis’ role – he’ll join that Revis/Sherman/Peterson debate naturally. Not via Twitter vent. Not via media interview.
Gilmore has already studied all No. 1 wideouts on Buffalo’s schedule. His notes are full of tips, tendencies.
“So,” he says, “we’ll see.”
No, he won’t divulge any details. But, yes, he is very confident.
“I kind of know what they’re doing.”
Gilmore cracks a smile. It’s impossible to argue that point.