ATLANTA — Since the day he walked in the door, Stephon Gilmore had talked about how it was a "blessing" to be able to play for his hometown team, about how a childhood dream had come true when he was traded to the Panthers.
So making a game-clinching interception in the fourth quarter of his first game in his new uniform was almost too good to be true.
Gilmore's late pick of Matt Ryan helped the Panthers clinch a 19-13 win at Atlanta Sunday, and set the bar pretty high in his debut.
"It felt great," Gilmore said. "You always want to make plays when you go out there, and you're coming home. And making a play in my first game and helping the team win, that was a great feeling."
That's about as close as you get to a big emotional outburst from Gilmore, who is soft-spoken and even-keeled. But he's always shown up on the field (as evidenced by the 2019 NFL defensive player of the year award).
The Panthers had a limited package of plays for him Sunday, as he recovers from last year's quad injury. Since he hadn't played since last December and only practiced for two weeks with the Panthers, he was still working through the process of returning to play. He was on the stationary bike to stay warm during the game, but was in the right spot when the Panthers needed him the most, with the interception with 1:53 left.
Gilmore was also a part of a defense which kept the clamps on rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, the 6-foot-6 matchup nightmare who had 16 catches for 282 yards and a touchdown the last two weeks. Pitts had two catches for 13 yards.
"He's a great player and kind of gave me a welcome into the NFL, so I know how to come back and do better next week," Pitts said. "He's just a previous defensive player of the year and did some different things that I haven't seen before, so it's just a time for me to go back to the lab and fix it."
Gilmore's reputation is well-earned, but he's still in the process of learning his new teammates and fitting into his role.
"This is a great defense," he said. "Just got to keep doing it each and every week and turn the page and get better the following week. That's the thing good defenses are consistent and they show up the following week. . . .
"I did OK. Just trying to learn as much as I can. I was just able to practice last week, and trying to get my feet wet, learning from the players and the coaches. I played OK, a lot of stuff I can correct, and just take care of my body and try to prepare for next week."
About next week's game with the Patriots.
While he's not a big talker, GIlmore made no secret that he's looking forward to seeing his previous team (in what will be his first home game for his hometown team).
"Looking forward to it," he said simply.
Asked if the matchup with the team that traded him for a 2023 sixth-round pick meant "a little extra," Gilmore replied: "A lot extra."
View photos from Atlanta as the Panthers take on the Falcons in Week 8.