The game plan hadn’t been installed yet. But as players trickled in and out of the locker room Tuesday, Stephon Gilmore’s mind was already on the X’s and O’s, on who he hopes to cover Sunday against New England.
Julian Edelman? Another wide receiver outside?
“I hope I get ‘Gronk,’ to be honest with you,” Gilmore said. “We’ll see what the coaching staff says.”
The reason is simple.
“Because I know the ball’s going to him.”
It would make sense for the Buffalo Bills to use this 6-foot-1, 190-pound fourth-year veteran. Gilmore might have been the best player on the field in Buffalo’s 27-14 win over Indianapolis. The cornerback who was ready to trail the opposition’s No. 1 receiver this year was left alone on receivers all game and responded with four pass break-ups. But those were wide receivers. Now, he wants to take on the 6-foot-6, 265-pound beast of a tight end.
The challenge is different than an Andre Johnson or T.Y. Hilton. Rob Gronkowski lines up inside and outside. He’s not a burner, he’s a bruiser. Guys this size aren’t supposed to be this athletic.
Through his three pro seasons, Gilmore hasn’t faced Gronkowski much at all and the results have been devastating. In seven games against Buffalo, the Williamsville native has 37 receptions for 543 yards and nine touchdowns. Now that the Patriots often split him out wide, Gilmore expects to face Gronkowski more either way.
He speaks softly – sometimes you need to lean in to listen – but make no mistake: Gilmore wants to trail him.
“I can go inside,” Gilmore said. “He’s a bigger guy so it’s not like I’m going inside on a smaller guy. But like I said, it’s whatever the coaches want me to do to help this team win.
“I want him.”
The ball is in Rex Ryan’s court. The head coach said Gilmore was “phenomenal” against Indianapolis. From go routes to crossing routes, he blanketed the Colts’ receivers.
Gilmore broke up one slant to T.Y. Hilton that could have gone the distance. He was physical with Andre Johnson. And there’s that one dropped interception deep right – everyone has been giving him grief for that one. Even his wife.
“She said, ‘That’s what’s going to separate you,’ ” Gilmore said. “Because she knows football. She said, ‘You owe me one.’ So I have to get that one back.”
It seemed like Gilmore was in the Indianapolis huddle because, in a way, he was. Gilmore often knew what routes were coming before the snap because he studied the subtleties of each receiver’s game all off-season.
One game in, he leads the NFL in pass break-ups.
Yet for all the renewed fervor across Buffalo, Gilmore has also been here since 2012. The Patriots have owned the Bills and that, he admits, is “the reality.”
Changing this reality could mean using Gilmore more often against the Patriots’ No. 1 weapon, “Gronk.”
“His size and his ability to go up and get the ball,” said linebacker Nigel Bradham of Gronkowski. “Him and Tom Brady are on the same page together, so we have to find a way to disrupt that. … We’ll see what the game plan is.”
Don’t count on the Bills taking the Pittsburgh Steelers’ confused, passive approach to Gronkowski. Several times, they lost track of him completely or were caught with a slow, overmatched linebacker over the tight end and the football-spiking Gronkowski made them pay with 94 yards and three touchdowns.
The key, Gilmore said, is to be physical and adjust accordingly throughout the game.
Like those Colts receivers, he watched a ton of film on Gronkowski over the off-season for this exact opportunity.
“What he’s good at is he goes against linebackers or some safeties and pushes off,” Gilmore said. “Even when he catches the ball, his YAC is pretty good.
“He doesn’t really beat people over the top on deep balls. He’s mostly going up the seam or on crossing routes or sitting in the zones. We’ll have to see how he plays against us. We don’t really know yet, what our game plan is. So we’ll see.”
The Bills will need to be ready. Brady targeted Gronkowski 8.7 times per game last season.
Asked if he can go to Rex Ryan’s office and ask for this assignment, Gilmore grins.
“We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see.”