One of the most interesting aspects of watching football is seeing how the “game within the game” plays out. During the New England vs. Arizona game this past Sunday, one of those matchups was Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore against Cardinals wide receiver Deandre Hopkins.
Gilmore, the reigning defensive player of the year, has been one of the best defensive backs in football since arriving in Foxboro. He’s had multiple encounters with Hopkins, who has been named 1st Team All-Pro at wide receiver for three consecutive seasons. You could make the argument that both players are at the top of their position across the entire NFL.
The matchup lived up to the hype, with both players getting the best of their counterpart a few times during the length of the game.
New England isn’t shy about leaving Gilmore on an island, assigning him to man coverage and trusting that he’ll blanket the opposing receiver. Gilmore prefers to play in a half-turn in these situations to assure that he won’t get beat over the top. Arizona realized this, and Hopkins ran multiple “Speed-Out” routes for first downs. The Speed-Out is the best route to run against a cornerback playing in a half-turn, as it’s difficult for the cornerback to open their hips or speed-turn in time to contest the throw.
Hopkins found success on Out routes against Gilmore even when he wasn’t playing in a half-turn, as Gilmore gave enough cushion and struggled to transition. Hopkins remaining flat towards the sideline helped him maintain the separation that he created with the route break. Once again, Arizona was able to move the chains by targeting Hopkins.
Throughout the rest of the game and route tree, Gilmore did a great job blanketing Hopkins. Gilmore had a quick transition and closed the separation when Hopkins ran a “Basic” route, which requires a cut across the middle of the field. Gilmore played with depth, but was on Hopkins almost immediately and forced the throw elsewhere.
Even when Arizona head coach and play-caller Kliff Kingsbury anticipated that New England would be playing man coverage and dictated their offensive play for it, Gilmore found success.
Arizona ran the “Mesh” concept, which calls for two shallow crosses that act as screens for each other. Gilmore saw it, avoiding Cardinals tight end Dan Arnold and undercut Hopkins to get into the passing lane.
Twice during the game, Hopkins tested Gilmore’s press coverage with a vertical route. Despite Gilmore not shooting his hands to jam Hopkins at the line of scrimmage, his footwork was clean. On the first rep, Gilmore was able to attach to Hopkins’ hip and match the route down the field.
On the second rep, Gilmore kept his eyes on the quarterback and forced the safe throw from Kyler that landed incomplete. That redzone incompletion put the Cardinals into a crucial 4th down.
Twice during the Cardinals fourth quarter drive to tie the game, Gilmore was called for penalties. One of them came on offsetting pass interference calls on a 3rd down, which hurt the defense because Arizona got another opportunity to convert and eventually succeeded. The second penalty came on an incomplete pass on a 3rd and Goal, giving Arizona a fresh set of downs on the 2 yard line.
Both penalties hurt the Patriots defense and extended the Cardinals game-tying drive. Both were caused because of Hopkins physical nature in tight coverage, especially near the line of scrimmage. While these yards don’t show up in the box score, Gilmore doesn’t need to play as aggressive against other, lesser wide receivers.
While both elite players got the better of each other at certain points during the game, Hopkins’ lack of true production on routes against Gilmore suggests that Gilmore got the better of the matchup. That victory “within” the game was part of the reason that New England’s defense had a great outing against the Cardinals offense, helping the team emerge victorious.