Stephon Gilmore isn’t the type to rank the groups he’s been a part of. But the five-time Pro Bowler’s got a quiet confidence about him that’ll eventually get you the answers you’re looking for. And early Sunday evening, Gilmore and I did get there, maybe an hour after his new team in Dallas beat the brakes off the one he won a Super Bowl with in New England.
I first asked Gilmore whether there’s anything that differentiates the defense he’s on now from those among his four previous NFL stops.
“We have a lot of talent,” he says. “We just gotta press each other, believe in each other. Stop the run, stop the pass and just trust each other. And I think if we play how we played today, we can beat anybody.”
So, I then asked, knowing the answer might not be forthcoming, if this Cowboys group has a chance to be the best defense he’s ever played on.
“We’ve gotta keep earning it every week,” he says. “We got a great defense. But we gotta earn it every week.”
That, to Gilmore, is what Dallas’s 38–3 rout of the Patriots was about.
It was about how, yes, when the Cowboys are locked in, their defense has as high a ceiling as any in the NFL, and any the 12-year vet has ever played on. But it was also about how fragile that can be on a week-to-week basis, especially within a league geared toward juicing its offenses and handcuffing defenses.
It was that way for Gilmore and the Cowboys due to what they were coming off—an ugly Week 3 loss to the Cardinals, during which Arizona piled up 400 yards of offense, rushed for 222 while averaging 7.4 yards per carry, and had journeyman Joshua Dobbs post a 120.0 passer rating. Arizona, to its credit, was game, and ready for Dallas, as the plucky Cards have been for everyone all year.
But the harsh reality was that if the Cowboys were who everyone made them out to be after their defense throttled the Giants and Jets in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively, afternoons like the one in Glendale, Ariz., can’t happen. And that message was communicated clearly back in Dallas during the week.
“We learned from it,” Gilmore says. “We just gotta be able to play every week. It’s a given Sunday, we gotta be able to come out and play. Each week is different, we can’t take nobody lightly. And we did last week and they got our number last week. But we were able to learn from it and play a good game this week.”
Good is probably an understatement.
With the lion’s share of the yardage coming on their first drive (which ended in a field goal), the Patriots were able to roll up 94 yards on 10 offensive snaps in the first quarter. And, really, that was that for the New England offense.
From there, the Patriots managed just 159 yards on 45 plays, six first downs and zero points—while the Cowboys’ defense managed to score on two of three turnovers it forced. The first came on a strip sack from Dante Fowler Jr., which was recovered and returned 11 yards for a score by Leighton Vander Esch. The following came later in the second quarter, when DaRon Bland, Trevon Diggs’s replacement at outside corner, jumped in front of Kendrick Bourne on an ill-advised cross-field throw by Mac Jones, and easily housed it from 54 yards out.
“That was nice,” Gilmore says. “He tried to throw it back across the field, and we gotta make them pay when they do that.”
Truth is, Dallas made Jones and the New England offense pay all afternoon for what the Cowboys’ defense didn’t do (namely, show up) the week before in Arizona.
And now, Gilmore thinks, with the team having had the time to adjust to Diggs’s absence, plus the chance to learn from what happened in Week 3, it can get back on the path it was on to start the season.
“We never want to lose one of our brothers like Trevon,” Gilmore says. “We’re praying for him. Big loss for us last week, especially during practice. But the DBs stepped up big for us this week. We’ve got to be able to lean on guys stepping up. That’s part of the game.”
With the defense recentered, where could that path take Dallas?
Consider this: Combining the Jets, Giants and Patriots games, the Cowboys generated 10 turnovers, 12 sacks and three defensive touchdowns. They have arguably the best nonquarterback through the first month of the season, in Micah Parsons, and a coordinator, in Dan Quinn, who has led Super Bowl defenses in the past and is now in his third year working with the group.
That also means the Cowboys have spent three offseasons adding guys like Gilmore, who fit what Quinn wants on that side of the ball.
So where the Arizona game gave the Cowboys an example of how quickly things can unravel, this week showed everyone, again, just how good their defense can be. And it’s why, in his typically understated tone, Gilmore left it at this: “I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Clearly, he’s got reason to be.