WESTFIELD – Matt Ryan didn’t exactly have a numbing flashback, but he had experienced this before.
During 7-on-7 work this week, he took a short drop and targeted Parris Campbell.
The football never reached its intended destination.
Stephon Gilmore had other ideas. He read the route – the NFL’s 2019 Defensive Player of the Year tends to do that a lot – and sliced in front of Campbell for an interception.
“Unfortunately, that’s not the first time he’s picked me off,’’ Ryan said with a laugh after practice.
The only other time actually counted. It was week 8 of last season and Ryan was in his 14th and final season with the Atlanta Falcons. Gilmore was making his first appearance with the Carolina Panthers.
Trailing 19-10 with 1:58 remaining, Ryan faced a 1st-and-10 at the Carolina 30. He was looking for rookie tight end Kyle Pitts on a post pattern, but was hit just as he was stepping into the throw. That resulted in Ryan’s pass being slightly behind Pitts and allowed Gilmore to gather in the game-sealing interception
“He’s good, he really is,’’ Ryan said. “He’s got excellent pattern recognition, really good. Savvy, good ball skills.’’
Gilmore was one of general manager Chris Ballard’s most significant offseason acquisitions. He relocated to Indy with a two-year, $23 million free-agent contract, and is expected to provide versatile, top-tier coverage skills for first-year coordinator Gus Bradley’s defense.
“His demeanor is just the same every day,’’ Bradley said after Monday’s practice at Grand Park Sports Campus. “You just automatically have great trust in him because you know there’s not a situation he hasn’t been a part of.
“He brings great poise to the whole defense.’’
Gilmore actually brings more. He’s someone who demands special attention.
“I can just tell you from a quarterback’s perspective, he’s the kind of cornerback you fear because (the) way he sees the game,’’ Frank Reich said. “He knows what’s coming before it’s coming.
“He’s so quick to recognize routes, concepts and then he has the ability to make plays on the ball and turn it over. Love him. Love the player, love the person, love how he’s fitting in with this team. I really feel like he’s helping our defense and helping our secondary to kind of elevate it to a new level for us.’’
Gilmore brings an impeccable resume: two-time first-team All-Pro, five Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl championship with New England and the ’19 Defensive Player of the Year recognition. Since 2018, he has a 91.1 coverage grade according to Pro Football Focus (1st among corners), and allowed a 64.8 passer rating (3rd) and 50.4 completion percentage (5th). His 11 interceptions rank 9th.
He dealt with a torn quadriceps for parts of the past two seasons, but appears to have put that behind him.
“For sure, I feel good. I feel strong,’’ Gilmore said. “I finally feel like myself and I’m looking forward to it.’’
Might he approach the level that resulted in being the NFL’s top defensive player just three years ago?
Gilmore made it clear he doesn’t dwell on past accomplishments.
“You have to earn it every day,’’ he said. “I don’t like to put that on myself. It takes a lot of hard work to become an elite player in this league.
“I put the work in. I think I’ll be a great player for this team. I’ll take each and every day to go out there and perfect my craft and communicate with my teammates. I’m just looking forward to the opportunity.’’
The Colts anticipate Gilmore being a difference-maker in their bounce-back season – they open the season Sept. 11 at Houston – but he’s already making a noticeable difference during training camp.
He’s routinely shadowing Campbell or Michael Pittman Jr. or rookie Alec Pierce during drills. The one-on-one competition is spirited, and invaluable.
Pierce noted how Gilmore seems to know his route before he runs it.
Those instincts can impact a quarterback.
“He’s one of those guys who sometimes can put a seed of doubt in your mind of what he’s going to do,’’ Ryan said. “Is he going to break on something? Is he going to give you something?
“With guys like that – I’ve played against a lot of them in my career – you have to really be accurate and you have to make good decisions. But it’s going to force us to get better. I mean, it really is. It’s really good work for our wide receivers. It’s really good work for me.’’
Again, the competition is fierce.
This week in one-on-one drills – receivers versus corners – Gilmore offered tight coverage against Pittman and batted the ball away. Pittman wasn’t pleased.
A few plays later, they were back at it. Pittman slashed to the right, Gilmore was in tight pursuit and Ryan put the football where only Pittman could catch it, and he did. Gilmore slapped his hands in frustration.
Good versus good should force each to improve.
“That is the universal principle, right?’’ Reich said. “The more you are challenged, the harder it is and the more you have to figure out how to win. This game ultimately – like we always say – comes down to one-on-one matchups and ‘How am I going to win my one-on-one matchup?’
“So, when you go up against a guy like Gilmore, you’re just challenged. Half the time he knows what you are doing and you still have got to find a way to win. He’s definitely challenged us all to get better.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.