Without Stephon Gilmore’s Injury, The 2021 Patriots Defense Looks Completely Different
It is never a “good” thing when an athlete gets injured. Nobody–with the exception of the evilest fanatics out there–wants to see a player get injured. While you might only look at players as widgets and fantasy football stocks, they are human beings with family, friends, and feelings. Nobody should cheer an injury. However, there are times when an injury can be good for a team. Sometimes this means an unheralded player steps up and turns into a diamond (Tom Brady) and, other times, it compels coaches to completely overhaul their team and/or system, leading to a better team.
For the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick, Stephon Gilmore’s injury at the end of the 2020 season was good. It was beneficial to the long-term health of the franchise and one of the foundation stones for the revamped 2021 Patriots defense.
Everybody knows Bill Belichick’s greatest strengths lie in his ability to change his system to the players as opposed to forcing the players to fit his system. Sure, Belichick might have some tried and true methods, but he values flexibility over all else. That is why somebody like Mike Vrabel can be a useless component with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but an integral part of championship-winning teams with the Patriots. Give Belichick Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner on the back end, and he plays mostly man coverage. Give him less qualified cornerbacks and defensive backs, and you are looking at a mostly zone team (three-year-old Belichick was probably sensational at putting round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square holes).
Belichick’s Flip from Man-to-Zone is a Direct Result of Stephon Gilmore’s Injury… and Stefon Diggs
For most of the past decade, the Patriots have been a man-to-man team. Historically, it is Belichick’s preferred method. In fact, most of the Patriots championships are tied to two things: Tom Brady and shutdown defenses with shutdown corners. But without a Ty Law, Revis, or Gilmore, what happens? This happens:
That is Stefon Diggs roasting J.C. Jackon on back-to-back plays in what appears to be man coverage. And in case you think this is nitpicking, not only did Diggs score another touchdown with Jackson as the primary defender, this is Diggs’ line from the game: nine catches on 11 targets for 145 yards and three touchdowns. Yes, he hauled in yet another touchdown, the last time with Jason McCourty in coverage. Diggs made it abundantly clear to Belichik; without Gilmore, there is nobody on the roster that can cover a true No. 1 receiver in man-to-man.
So what could Belichick do? What were his options? He switched to zone for the 2021 season.
Remember, that decision is much easier to swallow now with the defense playing lights out and J.C. Jackson ball-hawking like his normal bad self. But also remember, many looked at Jackon’s interception numbers and thought, “Belichick did it again. He found another No. 1 shutdown corner like Gilmore, Revis, and Law.” Before the Buffalo game, Jackon was seen as “elite” and “underrated,” and was supposed to be his coming out party.
But the Buffalo game proved that wasn’t entirely the case. Something didn’t add up. Jackson had eight interceptions coming into the Bills game (he would add a ninth in the final game of the season), and everyone was excited to see how he would perform after slotting in as the No. 1 corner after Stephon Gilmore’s injury. Unfortunately for the Patriots, Diggs proceeded to roast him like Norm MacDonald discussing a Carrot Top movie.
Belichick Makes the Tough Call (Again) and is Right (Again)
How could somebody with eight interceptions through 14 games played (he missed Week 5) and 16 interceptions in 19 starts, not be a No. 1 corner? Surely this must an aberration. But this is Bill Belichick. He knows what he sees when it happens on a football field. He saw a top-line wide receiver bludgeon his No. 1 cornerback so badly he had to switch defenders. Then after he switched defenders, the defense was still incapable of guarding the No. 1 wideout. Belichick saw the writing on the wall, and the writing said in letters three-foot-high:
YOU DO NOT HAVE A NO. 1 MAN-TO-MAN SHUTDOWN CORNERBACK ON YOUR ROSTER!!!
It did not matter to Belichick that he added a solid cornerback like Jalen Mills in the offseason and world-beater Matthew Judon to the defensive line. Belichick still understood–thanks to Stephon Gilmore’s injury and Stefon Diggs’ destruction of Jackson–that if he went man-to-man the defense would get gouged. As good as J.C. Jackon was (and is), he refused to try and put a square peg in a round hole. Now the Patriots–and J.C. Jackson–are reaping the fruits of Belichick’s labor and insight; switch to a mostly zone-based coverage on the backend and allow cornerbacks like Jackon to stay square to the quarterback with eyes in the backfield.
The results? 14 team interceptions, tied for second in the league with the Dallas Cowboys and just one behind the league-leading Bills who have 15 (after picking off the Jets four times in Week 10). As for Jackon? How is he doing? Also tied for second with Seattle’s Kevin Byard, both of whom trail wunderkind Trevon Diggs’ eight interceptions.
Obviously, there are more things that go into a defensive turnaround (most notably having an offense that can stay out on the field), but Belichick’s switch on the backend from mostly man to mostly zone is one of the key factors. But if you are looking around wondering why did Belichick make the switch, you can thank Stephon Gilmore’s injury and Stefon Diggs’ dismantling of J.C. Jackon from Week 16 in 2021. So yeah, sometimes injuries are good, so long as you have a coach like Bill Belichick who knows how to turn them to his advantage.