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Why Stephon Gilmore has been a shutdown corner for the Patriots

Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (right) works at his craft in practice.
Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (right) works at his craft in practice. (jessica rinaldi/Globe staff)

BUFFALO — Last December, when Stephon Gilmore came back to Buffalo for the first time as a Patriot, he was greeted by a chorus of boos and a busy day of work. The Bills targeted their former No. 1 corner six times. Four of those went incomplete, but they still dared. This year, they’d be wise not to even try.

From Game 1 of this season, Gilmore has been the shutdown cornerback the Patriots paid $65 million for. He didn’t just show up, having played at a high level for the second half of last season into the playoffs, but it’s been hard to watch Gilmore this season without coming to the conclusion he’s playing some of the best football of his career.

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“I don’t know,” Gilmore pondered, asked if he feels like he’s on his way to setting a high-water mark as a player. “I think I’ve got a lot of room to grow. I’m still getting better. The changes every week, you’ve got to prove yourself every week. It’s good to play good last week, but you have to prove yourself this week going against whoever it is. I do feel comfortable, though, and I do feel like I’m playing aggressively.”

Through seven games, Gilmore has yielded 16 catches on 37 targets for 173 yards. He’s allowed three touchdowns and has one interception. It’s not luck, according to Pro Football Focus, which has him ranked third among defenders in forced incompletions with 10. He’s returning to Orchard Park coming off an excellent day against Chicago receiver Allen Robinson, to whom he did not allow a catch on four targets.

And he has been more aggressive. Gilmore ranks second in the NFL with nine pass breakups. He has one interception, though odds are if he keeps getting his hands on passes he’ll snag a few more before the season is over. If that happens, the stats will show obvious improvement, even though the eye test already clearly does. Gilmore had nine pass breakups and two interceptions total last season.

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Gilmore said he’s been able to play more aggressively because he doesn’t have to think as hard. After a year-plus in Foxborough, he’s spending less time learning the system and how to play with his teammates and more time focusing on the specific tendencies of his next matchup.

“For five years I always changed coaches, changed defensive coordinators so I had to adjust a lot,” said Gilmore, who played for Chan Gailey, Doug Marrone, Rex Ryan and Anthony Lynn in Buffalo. “Here it’s more the same stuff. You get used to everybody. I think that helped me out a lot. The way the coaches coach, you get used to the same coaches. That allows me to play more aggressively.”

Aggressively, and without the coverage mixups of the past. One thing clear in the Bears game is that the Patriots old struggles defending bunch formations were not an issue that day.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said having Gilmore in the building for a full offseason has been important, but that the player wasn’t the only one who needed to get up to speed.

“Well, I think — again, he was a good player in Buffalo, obviously, and has done a good job for us,” Belichick said. “I think he’s continued to improve for us as he’s gotten more familiar with our scheme, and also I think we were able to utilize him in ways that are more advantageous to him.”

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The Patriots don’t just stick Gilmore on one receiver, but they let him match up with an opponent’s top target for significant portions of games. It has always seemed as if Gilmore has played his best in those kinds of situations, and he’s held his own against DeAndre Hopkins, Donte Moncrief, Sammy Watkins and Robinson, among others.

“He’s playing with a lot of confidence, playing with good technique and just the second year has helped, like it usually does with most players,” Belichick said.

That might not be happening without good study habits. Gilmore said he feels as if he gets more out of taking his iPad home, or sitting in a meeting than he used to. With experience, it’s easier to see how an opponent’s scheme might dictate how a receiver plays against him, or how other pieces are likely to fit together.

“The older you get the more you understand, the better you go about studying the film and you get smarter, obviously, the more and more you play. I think I have gotten better at studying film and knowing what the offenses are doing,” Gilmore said.

“Even in meetings where the coaches talk about watching film, I try to listen to what they’re trying to tell us and also listen from my point of view. I put myself in the game. ‘OK, if I’m in this position how should I play this?’ ”

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It’s unsurprising to those who have played against Gilmore that he puts in that time.

“I’ve seen him do nothing but get better and better and better and better and better,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, whose teams have faced Gilmore five times since the corner entered the league in 2012. “I don’t know his study habits, but you watch his game and you go, ‘OK, this kid here is sharp and spends time at his trade.’”

Reid then went out and watched Gilmore keep a lid on Watkins, allowing two catches for 18 yards and a pass breakup on the four passes thrown Watkins’s way when the two were matched up.

The Bills don’t have a Sammy Watkins, so the best idea might be to just not try.

The Patriots didn’t get Gilmore for October games in Buffalo, though. They signed him to be a high-impact player in high-impact games. This year, he’s been worth every penny.


Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.