His secrets and techniques come within the subtleties, the little tics and tells one picks up from a decade spent shadowing the perfect receivers within the sport. Even his personal coaches admit his velocity isn’t what it was, that his biggest asset is now his thoughts, a library of routes and schemes and stems that Stephon Gilmore has rigorously cataloged through the years and makes use of to coach teammates who had been in center faculty when he first entered the league.

He research the eyes and he research the toes, and it helps him really feel the route earlier than the ball is ever snapped. When the play hastens, he slows down — he discovered a very long time in the past that panic will get you crushed.

“One mistake,” he says, “and boom, touchdown.”

His new teammates in Indianapolis have felt this, attempting (and principally failing) to shake freed from him throughout coaching camp the final month. Gilmore’s endurance late within the down is staggering. It’s rattling close to not possible to idiot him.

“The thing that makes me so mad about Steph,” says Colts wideout Parris Campbell, “is that he’s always calm. Like, I’ll be hauling ass, trying to get him to bite on a go route, and it makes me so angry because he’s just … chillin’.”

“A lot of times,” provides rookie Alec Pierce, “he knows the route I’m running before I run it.”

Mo Alie-Cox first lined up towards Gilmore within the spring, dropping 5 of eight one-on-one reps in a drill that closely favors the offense. The tight finish walked away shaking his head.

“Dude’s like a glove,” he says. “You gotta bring your best stuff. He’s seen everything.”

Alie-Cox determined to experiment in coaching camp just a few months later. He knew Gilmore had his footwork memorized and was utilizing that to anticipate his breaks on the ball. When the tight finish lined up together with his left foot ahead in a sure set, that meant one route; when his proper foot was ahead, that meant one other. So Alie-Cox flipped them, deliberately throwing off the timing of the route — and going towards how the coaches had been instructing it.

Gilmore, Alie-Cox admits, is the one cornerback he’s ever tried that towards.

Did it work?

“Not really,” he says with amusing. “You think I’m the first guy to try that on him?”

Day after day, week after week, Gilmore’s been stellar at Colts camp, displaying sticky protection in his pink and black Air Jordan 1s that by no means appear a step behind. He hardly ever says a phrase. He by no means misses a day. He’ll be the perfect outdoors nook the Colts have had for the reason that transient however blistering peak of Vontae Davis.

But camp is camp, and Gilmore wasn’t lured to city on a two-year, $20 million deal within the spring to dominate Westfield in August. It’s one factor to frustrate Campbell, Pierce and Alie-Cox on the observe discipline; it’s one other to do it towards a number of the top-end wideouts the Colts will face this fall, amongst them Terry McLaurin (Week 8), Davante Adams (Week 10) and A.J. Brown (Week 11).

Gilmore says it’s been three years since he was absolutely wholesome. He completed that season, 2019, because the league’s runaway defensive participant of the 12 months, changing into simply the second cornerback to win the award over the past quarter-century. But elite corners don’t keep elite corners for lengthy. Gilmore bought damage. He was traded. He’s on his third workforce in three years, waging two battles directly: He believes he can nonetheless be the perfect within the sport at a place the place longevity is more and more scarce.

No cornerback above the age of 30 has earned a first-team All-Pro nod in six years. Gilmore, at 31, seeks to be the outlier. The Colts may want him to be.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, so I know what it takes to get back to that,” he says. “I think I can. There aren’t many guys out there who can do what I do.”


His go to to Indianapolis within the spring took him again to varsity, again to all these recruiting visits he made as a youngster. Three weeks into free company and Gilmore nonetheless hadn’t made up his thoughts. Teams had been calling, asking him to return for a go to; he was staying affected person. He needed to do what he hadn’t the primary time he hit the open market — sit, wait, then discover the perfect match.

The Colts reached out, so Gilmore hit up an previous teammate.

“What’s this team about?” he requested Kenny Moore II, who overlapped with Gilmore for a brief stint in New England. “What’s it like there?”

Moore spelled it out. Gilmore was intrigued.

“Never been to Indy besides the combine (back in 2012) and the games I’ve played here, so I didn’t know a thing,” he says. “But I’ll be honest: This city is cooler than most people think.”


Stephon Gilmore addresses followers earlier than a session of coaching camp. He says Indianapolis is “cooler than most people think.” (James Boyd / For The Athletic)

He agreed to a go to. The Colts flew him in. Over lunch at Rick’s Café Boatyard, defensive backs coaches Ron Milus and Mike Mitchell made their pitch.

Gilmore admits to having reservations, and he allow them to be identified that afternoon. He’d spent the majority of his 10-year profession in heavy man-to-man schemes, typically remoted towards the opponent’s most deadly receiver. It’s what he constructed his title on, excelling at some of the brutal positions in immediately’s sport. He may shadow an elite wideout all around the discipline, all sport lengthy, typically with out assist.

The Colts, in the meantime, had been revamping their protection beneath new coordinator Gus Bradley and his three-deep zone scheme.

Milus’ response? It’s a mix of each.

“We’ve got a lot more man baked into this scheme than you think,” Milus instructed him. “But you’re also not going to be running and chasing a guy 65 plays a game.”

Milus pointed to Richard Sherman, who lined up for Bradley again in Seattle and grew into top-of-the-line corners within the sport. There was additionally this: Against the 3-by-1 units that so many offenses desire working in immediately’s pass-happy NFL — three cross catchers on one facet, one remoted on the opposite — Gilmore would primarily be on an island, instructed to shadow the opponent’s No. 1 weapon.

In different phrases, what he’s executed for a lot of the final 10 years.

“It’s a zone, but it’s not a true zone,” Gilmore says with a smile.

The Colts, in determined want of a cross rusher, had shipped Rock Ya-Sin to Las Vegas in change for Yannick Ngakoue. That created a gap at nook, they usually wanted to fill it.

“We need a guy where it ain’t gonna be too big for him,” Milus instructed Gilmore over lunch. “Now, some guys don’t like that. We know you do. A guy where, if a receiver runs a 15-yard comeback, you’re right there on his hip.”

The Colts let Gilmore go away city with out signing him, nonetheless desirous to sift by means of his medical evaluations, assured that their pitch hit house. Mitchell, whose 10-year profession at security ended with the Colts in in 2018, led the inner cost, pushing everybody from basic supervisor Chris Ballard to assistant GM Ed Dodds to go athletic coach Erin Barill to log out.

He’d watched Gilmore climb from a top-10 choose in Buffalo to the perfect within the sport in New England, and felt his arrival would elevate a younger Colts secondary. Imagine this man in conferences, Mitchell mentioned. Imagine our younger gamers watching him observe.

“I was kicking and screaming, banging on every door in our building,” Mitchell remembers. “Ballard. Dodds. Erin Barill. You title it. I used to be yelling, ‘We need him!’

“I just kept asking myself, ‘How much better are we gonna be if we add Steph?’ We got Kenny. We got Isaiah (Rodgers). We’d just signed (Brandon) Facyson. It’s rare you get a cornerback room like that. Me? I’d love to play safety in this room right now.”

But first, the Colts had work to do — Gilmore had spent the higher a part of two years slogging by means of a knee harm, and after being traded to Carolina halfway by means of final season, he wasn’t the identical participant. Would he ever be once more? Ballard and Dodds labored the telephones. Gilmore’s coach instructed them he hadn’t been wholesome since 2019, however he was shut. Barill and the Colts’ employees put him by means of a battery of evaluations and got here away believing the knee was close to 100%.

Gilmore was on the unsuitable facet of 30, however Ballard and Dodds felt the danger was value it.

“There was more going on with (the knee) than I think anyone knew last year,” Dodds says. “He didn’t play bad for them. He just didn’t play a lot, and I think that was the health stuff.”

What struck Milus most over lunch that day: how a lot it felt like Gilmore was interviewing them. He wasn’t speeding this course of, wasn’t leaping on the first provide or essentially the most assured cash. He wasn’t going to signal with a workforce except he felt it was set as much as win.

In 2017, Gilmore signed with the Patriots 4 days into free company. This time round, he waited 32.

“We really think we’re getting a guy who’s a lot closer to the ’19 version than the ’21 version,” Milus says.


When Vontae Davis was good for the Colts, he was actually good — the franchise has been on this metropolis 38 years, and he’s nonetheless the one outdoors cornerback to earn a Pro Bowl nod. (Moore, who principally strains up within the nickel, earned his first honor final season.) But privately, coaches and workforce executives bristled at Davis’ observe habits and his propensity to overlook prolonged time with minor accidents.

Part of the rationale this regime recruited Gilmore so exhausting, Milus says, was the instance they knew he’d set.

“Now our young guys know what a professional looks like,” Milus says. “He’s got trophies on his wall at the house, but he’s not all about himself. … All I hear is a lot of, ‘Yes, coach, how do you want me to do that?’”

Colts exec Morocco Brown places it extra succinctly: “You’re trying to set a standard within your position group.”

Colts’ DB Pro Bowlers, Indy period

Player Year(s) Position

Bob Sanders

2005, 2007

Safety

Mike Adams

2014, 2015

Safety

Vontae Davis

2014, 2015

Cornerback

Antoine Bethea

2007, 2009

Safety

Kenny Moore II

2021

Cornerback

Gilmore is the uncommon star nook who retains quiet, content material to let his play do the speaking; not as soon as throughout coaching camp was he yapping after a cross breakup. (He had lots of them.) Ballard thinks Gilmore could be essentially the most humble celebrity he’s ever been round within the league. The Colts staged 16 practices in Westfield over the past month. Gilmore by no means missed one.

“I don’t take days off,” he says.

The protection not solely seemed totally different however performed totally different, irritating new QB Matt Ryan and the passing offense on loads of days, buoyed by the perfect back-end expertise they’ve had in years.

“A technician,” Facyson calls Gilmore. “He’s got this confidence where he thinks he’s going to win every single rep, and he wants them to throw it his way every single time. Not every guy is like that. He’s just a smooth cat.”

With Gilmore, it’s not the velocity however his savvy that stands out: He’s a grasp of the angles and figuring out little issues receivers love to do to squeeze out house. He’s hardly ever out of place; you by no means see him chasing a receiver after falling for a faux. At his peak, throughout his three-plus seasons in New England, Gilmore established himself as the perfect within the sport. In the playoffs, opposing QBs all however stopped throwing to him. Across seven postseason begins, Gilmore’s receiver was focused simply 29 instances. He allowed 9 completions and made the decisive cross breakups within the 2017 AFC title sport and Super Bowl LIII.

In Westfield, he labored Pierce over early in camp, providing the rookie a glimpse into how little respiratory room he’s going to have at this stage. And Campbell can solely snicker when he sees Gilmore throughout the road of scrimmage throughout morning walk-throughs.

“He’ll be calling out the routes before the ball is even snapped,” Campbell says.

“Playing corner is a mind game,” Gilmore says. “You gotta be athletic, but that’s not enough. I make my job easier by knowing what they’re doing before they do it. That way, I don’t have to stress. If you’re stressing, this job can be really hard.”

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Stephon Gilmore’s efficiency with the Patriots in 2019 earned him NFL defensive participant of the 12 months honors. (David Kohl / USA Today)

Another purpose Gilmore by no means panics when the ball is within the air is he’s distinctive at finding it together with his again to the play. He doesn’t flail. He doesn’t foul. He doesn’t attain till the final second.

That’s what occurs once you spend most of your profession in man-to-man protection: You belief your instincts, and also you learn the receiver.

“He just has this sixth sense,” Milus mentioned, “where he can just find the ball when it’s in flight. There’s a lot of guys who are in perfect position, but they still can’t get their hands on the thing. That’s where he separates himself. Maybe that’s why he was the 10th pick in the draft back in the day.”

Mitchell says he’s like an elite receiver in that regard — all he wants is a look.

“A lot of defensive backs could watch the ball the whole way and they’ll still drop it,” the coach says. “Not only will he get his body around, but he’ll locate it, and a lot of times, he’ll catch it. That’s why they pay him what they pay him.”

Can that ability be taught? Can or not it’s skilled?

Milus laughs.

“Sure. We work on it,” he mentioned. “But a lot of times, it’s whatever your mom and dad gave you.”

Gilmore does drill it, retreating after practices every day to the Jugs machine, the place he’ll catch dozens of balls from all kinds of angles, together with from behind. He snagged just a few interceptions off Ryan in 11-on-11 work in Westfield, sufficient to stir the quarterback to say this after considered one of them: “He’s one of those guys who can put a seed of doubt in your mind of what he’s going to do.”

Reich, a former QB himself, felt it, too.

“He’s the kind of cornerback you fear.”

(Top photograph: Zach Bolinger / Icon Sportswire by way of Getty Images)



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