Stephon Gilmore's move to the Panthers opens up all kinds of schematic possibilities
On the surface, Stephon Gilmore is an iffy fit in Carolina. But Panthers DC Phil Snow can craft unique ways to maximize Gilmore's skill-set.
Life, as the kids say, comes at you fast.
12-months ago, Stephon Gilmore was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He was a nagging inspiration behind the endless conversations about the value of coverage vs. pass-rush. Was he the most valuable defensive player in the league, not Aaron Donald?
Throughout the 2020 offseason, murmurs (murmurs!) trickled out of Foxborough that Gilmore was looking for a once-in-a-lifetime, 17-million-dollar-a-year deal, be it with the Patriots or with another team on the open market. Bill Belichick being Bill Belichick, immediately started to shop his All-Pro corner.
On Wednesday, the Patriots traded Gilmore to the Panthers for a conditional, FUTURE sixth-round draft pick.
Oof. Now is not the time to get into the wherefores and whatnots of why the Patriots bailed on Gilmore before he was able to return from the PUP list. The general points are accepted: His quad injury; his contract demands; the team structure. What is, in this writer’s view, the most compelling part of the story is where Gilmore wound up.
In those oh-so-precious hours before it was reported that Gilmore was on his way to Carolina, the accepted wisdom was the Gilmore would be released and then snapped up by one of the traditional contenders. You know the suspects: The Bucs, Chiefs, Packers, Rams.
The Panthers? Really?
The initial reaction to the news went something like this: The Panthers lost Jaycee Horn! They got clubbed over the head by all those Dallas receivers! Now they’ll have, eventually, a number one they can stick outside and trust.
And while all of that may be true, the Gilmore deal has potential for so much more than that. The Panthers should be thinking bigger. The Panthers probably are thinking bigger.
The tectonic plates of the league shifted underneath Gilmore, that’s important to note. His contractual demands and injury status no doubt dinged his value on the open market, but the league is in the middle of a cultural shift on the defensive side of the ball.
The Patriots remain one of the final holdouts of the man-coverage-above-all era.
Throughout Gilmore’s time in New England, the Patriots played almost exclusively in man-coverage, and, if not man-coverage, in a form of pattern-matching coverage that allowed Gilmore to play to his strengths. Belichick would mix things up, but the Patriots base was 1-Rat coverage, New England parlance for cover-1, a man-to-man coverage with a free defender — be it in the low hole or playing as a robber in the high-hole. It was tried-and-true, press-man, bump-and-run overage. In that setup, Gilmore was a menace.
That’s not where the league is today. The rise of the horizontal-stretch offense — the tight receiver splits that flood the McVay-Shanahan-LaFleur systems (and their derivatives), and the non-stop barrage of so-called ‘man-beater’ concepts – switch releases, intersecting routes, etc. – has pushed defensive coordinators to shift their focus.
It’s a spot-dropping league right now, people! Even Belichick allowed himself a sordid affair with the spot-dropping style last season once Gilmore went down with his injury. But while Belichick has returned to his typical press-man setup this season, the majority of the league is steadfast in its belief that spot dropping is the way to combat the influx of condensed offenses.
That doesn’t jive with Gilmore. Gilmore is not a read-then-react sort of corner. He gets up on the line, bodies receivers, and then sits in their hip pocket. Plant Gilmore off the line of scrimmage, ask him to sift and react, and you’re not maximizing his potential. You’re getting an average corner, in all honesty. And no team is committing $15 million a year to a 30-year-old, average corner coming off a serious quad injury.
In some respects, adding Gilmore belies what the Panthers have been running this season under Phil Snow, the team’s defensive coordinators. The Panthers have been all-in on this current boom of blah zones. They run a steady dose of match-quarters, but Snow is happy to spend prolonged stretches sitting in the non-match, spot-dropping, split-safety classics: Cover-2, Cover-4, Cover-6.
Spot dropping is at it sounds: A defender has a pre-defined zone they’re dropping to. It’s the classic, old-school, zone-coverage style. A match-zone (pattern-matching, if you will), is more of a complex coverage: The defender reads the release of a designated receiver and then either drop to a zone or converts into man-coverage, depending on the principle within that given concept.
After kicking drop zones to the curve by the 2010s — sans Seattle — the NFL is now in the midst of a spot-dropping renaissance. Everyone wants to live in a two-high world to get as many eyes on the ball as possible and to protect against the play-action shots that have been the go-to means of hitting explosive plays. It’s see-it-then-rally stuff, defensively. The idea, to many, is outdated (match-coverages exist for a reason!) but it’s the way the league is rolling.
There are two reasons why. One: it’s difficult to install a true pattern-matching system. It takes time and resources, two things a bunch of teams and staffs do not have. Two: NFL defenses are rotating a lot from pre-snap to post-snap these days. Few teams are static anymore. Everyone wants to morph and move; to present one picture pre-snap then shift to another post-snap. Offering a designated landmark to a defender while they rotate and move from one position to the other should, in theory, limit the need for communication and therefore the chance of coverage busts.
Like any team at the pro-level, the Panthers dabble in a bit of everything. But spot-dropping has become Phil Snow’s go-to on the back end:
Few teams are moving and roaming post-snap like the Panthers. They rotate constantly. They’re not running anything complex – that’s the beauty – but they try to get to the simple things by presenting a muddy, complex picture. If you can buy an extra beat or two by disguising the look on the back-end, forcing the quarterback to look, then look some more, then run a final check, then that’s an extra couple of beats for the pass-rush to get home.
Gilmore changes that calculus. He is among the finest press-man corners in the game. Asking him to bluff and move and rotate, to fake like it’s man before sliding into a zone, would be a waste of his talent.
Snow will have a plan. The former Baylor DC is embracing all kinds of innovative approaches. The Panthers are as flexible as any defensive front in the league. Snow has embraced every syllable of the hybridization movement. The Panthers flip between personnel packages. They’ll run a four-down front on one play; a three-down front the next. The call will remain the same, but he’ll blur the pre-snap picture.
Snow’s time in college has put him at the forefront of innovation at the NFL level. Switching fronts on a snap-to-snap, creeper pressures, early-down five-man pressures, closing the B-Gaps, ‘mugging’ anyone and everyone, all the central tenants of a modern, pliable, successful college defense, Snow is running at the pro-level — the access to better talent allowing him to indulge even whackier ideas.
It’s a philosophy built around flexibility, yes. But it’s not flexibility for flexibilities sake. It’s about finding the specific response to whatever the offense is throwing at him on that given week. The age of lining up and running what we run is over. A defense needs to be multiple and malleable; it must change drive-to-drive and week-to-week.
Snow gets it. Last year’s Panthers defense finished 24th in expected points added (EPA) per play. With a year bedded in Snow’s set-up and with some tidy free-agent additions, the Panthers are up to 3rd in EPA this season.
The Panthers are completely amorphous upfront. Gilmore should allow Snow to construct something similar on the back-end.
The question is not how Gilmore fits into the Panthers’ spot-dropping style, but what Gilmore unlocks. Ironically: Lock coverages.
A ‘lock’ coverage is a part-man, part-zone combination coverage. It allows a DC to man up on one (or two) receivers while zoning the rest of the field:
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