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Stephon Gilmore's first Panthers pick was days in the making
The veteran cornerback helps by making plays on the field, but he also provides an object lesson on how to work.
By Darin Gantt Nov 04, 2021
Photographs By Chanelle Smith-Walker

CHARLOTTE — Stephon Gilmore can clearly still run and cover. And he can teach a young secondary many things, at a graduate-school level, because he's done and seen so much.

But his ability to see the future might be what truly sets him apart.

The veteran cornerback made a quick impression on the Panthers with his late-game interception against the Falcons last week.

But that interception was years in the making, and it took months of rehab from last year's injury to put him in position to make it.

And that's why he was able to call it five days ahead of time.

"He runs routes for receivers," Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn said. "He's so smart out there. Really, his interception, that was just his knowledge. It started out Wednesday, and just kept going, running that route."

Chinn said that casually, and with a big grin on his face, because they're all still sort of amazed that a player of Gilmore's stature is here, doing his thing. But read that sentence again.

"It started out Wednesday, . . ."

For Gilmore to know what's coming with less than two minutes in the game, it takes hours of watching film of Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts and quarterback Matt Ryan. Everybody wants to make plays. Not everybody is willing to invest the time it takes to make them. But Gilmore has, and does, so when he got on the practice field last week and was running plays against the scout team, he recognized something he thought he could exploit.

"On the interception he made, he talked about that route and where he was going to position himself on that ball," veteran defensive coordinator Phill Snow said, a little astonished but a lot impressed with the way Gilmore effectively called his shot. "And he knew when he was going to get that route before the game ever started.

"He's been well-trained, and there's a lot of preparation that goes into that, a lot of video study, and he still does all that."

Defensive passing game coordinator Jason Simmons is quick to admit; he's also trying to learn from the way Gilmore prepares and plays, as much as the young players do.

"That's going to help me as a coach," Simmons said simply.

So last week, as the Panthers were preparing for the Falcons, being able to see Gilmore's anticipation unfold in real time was impressive to him.

"Going in, he's always had the reputation," Simmons said. "Guys know who the cerebral guys are. He's always been looked at as an uber-talented player, but also a cerebral player. He studies concepts, understands formations, understands players, and their stances, and their mannerisms."

Then Simmons laughed, and said: "Without giving too much away, . . ."

"But he talked about how he guards each individual route," Simmons said. "He understood and welcomed the matchup versus Pitts. He said on each play how he'd play each route and each guy. It was great for him to articulate that."

It was also impressive to see.

At this point, it's worth stopping to consider the fact that Stephon Gilmore vs. Kyle Pitts is in every way a physical mismatch.

Gilmore's 6-foot-1, 190 pounds. Pitts is 6-6, 245.

So when Gilmore lined up with what football coaches call "outside leverage," he's effectively trailing what would become an in-breaking route against a much bigger man who can reach over him and catch the ball. It's where you line up if you want to make sure a small play doesn't become a big one. If Gilmore starts the play inside, the route can go up the field, and Ryan could have easily gone over the top of him. It didn't hurt that linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. and defensive end Brian Burns were pressuring Ryan into a quicker throw.

"He just undercut it," Carter said. "He knew he was going to run the over route. So as soon as he felt pressure, he knew he was going to cut inside. Before the receiver made the cut inside, he was making the break inside. And Burns and myself did a good job of putting some pressure on Matt Ryan, forcing him to throw the ball fast. And Steph was just right there to make the interception."

And while the work started on the play days earlier, Gilmore figured he was going to have a chance at it earlier in the second half.

"We were on the sidelines like two series before the interception, and he said, 'I'm going to choose one leverage and play him like that, and undercut everything,'" rookie cornerback Keith Taylor Jr. said, eyes going a little wide recalling what he was witnessing. "And sure enough, it happened. He spoke it into fruition."

But it doesn't happen by talking. And it doesn't happen just by instinct. It takes a lot of work.

After the game, Pitts called it his "Welcome into the NFL" moment. Asked about that this week, Gilmore, in his usual soft-spoken way, made it sound simple.

"I just try to study guys and figure out what they don't like and try to expose it as much as I can," Gilmore said of the interception. "He's going to be a great player. That's what you try to do each and every week."

Asked if he had such a moment, Gilmore said, of course he had. (During a recent interview, he casually mentioned matching up with Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson during Gilmore's rookie year, which reminds you that he's been doing this at a high level for a very long time.)

"You've gotta learn from it," Gilmore said. "Can't hold your head down. It'll make you better at the end of the day if you want to. But it takes hard work. It's not easy."

Simmons used to work for the Packers, and had some guy named Charles Woodson. Maybe you've heard of him; he's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame too.

"Your great ones have it," Simmons said. "I was fortunate to be around Charles Woodson in Green Bay. Similar type of player. Always looking to make plays. That's what the great ones do, they look for opportunities to make plays and when they present themselves they take advantage of it. It was the same thing on that route; he (Gilmore) knew exactly how he was going to play it, how he was going to defend it, what picture he wanted to show the quarterback, and then to take it away.

"Woodson kind of reminds me of Steph. Charles said, 'Everybody sees it; I'm just willing to go get it.' It's really that simple. The great ones do that. And Steph is in that same category."

Gilmore has been a Panthers player for exactly one game so far, and played a grand total of 17 snaps. But he's been around for a few weeks preparing, since the early October trade that brought him here for the rest of the season.

And while he does have a star quality about him, he walks into the room with so little fanfare that he almost blends in.


"When he first walked in, he's got that quiet voice, and he's like, 'How you guys doing, I'm Stephon Gilmore,'" Taylor said, doing his best low-key Gilmore impersonation. "I looked at him like, 'Dang.' I mean my freshman year, in 2017, he got a pick in the Super Bowl. So it's crazy seeing him.

"But he fits in. It's not like a starstruck thing anymore. He's like one of the guys now."

Simmons noticed that, too.

"The biggest thing I take from him, of course he's a great player, all the things he's done, everybody respects that. But the biggest thing I took from meeting him was his humility," Simmons said. "He wanted to walk in immediately and ingratiate himself to the team. 'Hey, how you doing? I'm Steph.' Some of the younger guys were like, 'Come on Steph, we know who you are.' But it was true. It was true to who he was. 'Hey, how you doing? I'm here to help, however I can help, let me know.'

"He wanted to first take the mindset of being one of the guys. Now you see him growing and talking to the guys and guys being more drawn to him. Everything he does is within the scheme. He's not a guy saying, 'I'm going to do it this way,' it's matching his knowledge and everything he's done in his career, and matching it to what we do. And I appreciate that. A lot of veterans won't do that."

Even in the moments after his interception in Atlanta, Gilmore said one of his goals was to continue "learning." It's not faux-humility, though. It's genuine, and he admits that he's learned what it takes to be able to see things like that.

"I see the game way better now than when I first got in the league," he said of his preparation. "I look at it from a whole different perspective. I think the more you play, the more you see, and the more it allows you to make plays. Watching film, you picture yourself out there and think about what you're going to do to make plays for the team."

And he's definitely helping the entire team, not just the defensive backs room.

Carter's like a lot of the rest of them, still sort of amazed that the 2019 NFL defensive player of the year is walking among them, that a legend is now a peer. So when Gilmore walked up to him in that same quiet manner to introduce himself, Carter took the opportunity to learn from one of the masters, to see how Stephon Gilmore prepares to be Stephon Gilmore.

"He can teach you how he's breaking down film," Carter said. "How he's running routes for guys before it's happening. He's seen it throughout the week with his preparation. He told me how he studies certain plays, and teams. It's being able to pick up on little things in the short time he's been here. Obviously, he hasn't lost a step, he's still a great player, and I just think he takes our defense to a whole other level."

But the way he learns and teaches also makes it easier for the coaches, who are teaching an entire team.

Coaches say things. Seeing Gilmore do them in real-time on the practice field makes the lessons real to players.

"It absolutely helps. It also adds validity to what you're saying, because he's getting that done," Simmons said. "You talk about different route concepts, the younger guys have seen the concepts and the things we're trying to get done. He's actually doing his first day here.

"Understanding concepts, routes, sticks, stems, it's part of his game. To see him execute it on the field, it helps us as coaches."

Taylor and Carter agreed, mentioning things they've picked up from watching Gilmore practice.

"Watching him do it makes things simpler sometimes," Taylor said. "Coaches can say a whole bunch of words, and you're trying to do it. But you see him do it, and it's like, 'Oh that's what it looks like, that's how it's supposed to go.'"

"It's definitely better, when your teammates hold you accountable," Carter said. "Sometimes as players we're stubborn. You hear from your coaches and you're like, 'Oh man, I don't need you to tell me that, I've got it, I've got it.' But when it's coming from your peers, you want to listen more, you know it's coming from a good place, and we all want the same things."


And that might be the biggest benefit of having Stephon Gilmore here.

As talented as he is, as much as he's done in his career, he walked in the door talking about learning rather than teaching.

"Without a doubt, that's huge, because he doesn't have to," Simmons said. "But we knew what we were getting. We knew we were getting a pro. And the biggest thing about a pro, those guys just want to win. So whatever it takes to win to help this system, he's going to do.

"It's been good for the young players to see that."

Because Gilmore has been willing to share what he sees. And when they see it unfold the way he's described it, they realize they're in the presence of someone special.

"I think he has learned football," Snow said. "The people in his background, and I don't know who all is in his background, but they've done a great job of preparing him to play. But he understands formations and routes and what type of routes you get by splits, and he's been trained really well. He's put a lot of hard work into what he's doing. It's not all just instincts. Now there are some great instincts in there, and he's got great movement skills. But he's also worked on his movement skills. Obviously, he has some traits that allow that.

"I think he's made himself a great player."

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