COLORADO SPRINGS — The Rocky Mountains may have been the backdrop to the end of a rocky start with the Patriots for cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Officially removed from the injury report this week after playing last Sunday night against the Broncos, Gilmore said he is loving his time with the Patriots and is glad to have this week in Colorado to bond with his teammates.
“I love it. I love playing with the guys, they get the best out of me,” Gilmore said. “The coaches coach us [well] and we’ve just got to keep winning.”
Gilmore’s Patriots career didn’t get off to the best start. He often looked lost in coverage breakdowns and the defense was routinely torched in the first third of the year. Then, Gilmore missed three weeks with a concussion and ankle injury and watched as the defense played well without him.
But against the Broncos, Gilmore was solid in a tough matchup with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Thomas finished with five receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown and the defense held an opponent to fewer than 20 points again, this time with Gilmore on the field.
“I think Steph did a real good job of trying to play physical and aggressive and some of the things we asked him to do,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said on Tuesday. “Certainly when you get out there and back up to live game speed it’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment, but certainly I think he stepped up to go out in a very competitive situation.”
Gilmore said the concussion and waiting to play was frustrating, but it wasn’t because the Patriots were winning without him. Gilmore never finished better than 9-7 as a member of the Bills, and never has been 7-2 at this point during a season. Winning heals a lot of wounds.
While he was injured, Gilmore still attended meetings and did limited work during practice, which coach Bill Belichick said helped Gilmore get worked back in smoothly.
“He was able to practice in a red [no-contact] jersey there for a couple of weeks and then got the game action last week. I think all that added up,” Belichick said Monday. “It’s all a part of it. Hopefully this week will be better than last week.”
Gilmore didn’t feel as if the defense was playing better because he was out, he just felt it was the natural progression of a team getting better throughout the season. Gilmore’s teammates said as much, too.
“Steph is a tremendous player,” said safety Duron Harmon. “Great person as well. He’s constantly, he’s been out but he’s constantly been in there, learning, still trying to work, still asking questions, and I think that allowed him to play good last week.”
The matchup with Thomas was a hard one, though it played to Gilmore’s strengths in some ways by giving him one player to zero in on.
The Raiders’ offense is more versatile, with receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, who can be used more interchangeably than Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and a strong tight end in Jared Cook, who can function as an additional receiver. Gilmore’s assignment is likely to change more often against the Raiders, and how he responds will say more about how he’s adapted to the Patriots’ defense.
Center David Andrews missed the team’s practice Thursday because of an illness, according to the Patriots’ injury report.
Andrews hadn’t been listed on the injury report, so it was a surprise when he wasn’t spotted on the practice field at the beginning of the team’s session at the Air Force Academy Thursday morning.
The offensive line was already down right tackle Marcus Cannon, who isn’t on the trip, and playing without the pivot on a line that has grown used to each other would be an additional challenge.
Without Andrews, the Patriots would likely turn to backup interior lineman Ted Karras, but there’s no indication that Andrews’s illness is serious or would prevent him from playing on Sunday.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater (hamstring) and wide receiver Chris Hogan (shoulder) also were not with the team. Both are back home rehabbing injuries and are likely out Sunday.
Receiver Danny Amendola (knee), tight end Martellus Bennett (shoulder, hamstring), defensive tackles Alan Branch (neck) and Malcom Brown (ankle), defensive end Cassius Marsh (shoulder), and cornerback Eric Rowe (groin) were all limited.
The Patriots practiced on the game field at Falcon Stadium after using a practice field a few minutes away the day before.
A few minutes after the stretching portion of practice ended, a gray Air Force jet flew over the field.
Security guards at the academy entrance gate checked IDs of those in cars driving in to watch practice. They said, “Go Pats,” as they let the visitors through.
Some Patriots, including Tom Brady and Dwayne Allen, wore Air Force Falcons gear to practice, which took place in shirts and sweats.
After paratroopers landed on the practice field Wednesday, the Patriots got another surprise on Thursday. Ace, Zeus, Oblio, and Aurora, falcons trained at the Air Force Academy, visited with the team after practice. Aurora is the official mascot but Ace flew for the Patriots, performing a halftime routine before dutifully returning to his handler . . . In addition to the ESPN broadcast, the Patriots’ game against the Dolphins on “Monday Night Football” Dec. 11 in Miami will also air on WCVB Channel 5.