New England cornerback Jalen Mills took over a greater role when Stephon Gilmore was injured and eventually traded to Carolina. Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The voice was distant, desperate.

It carried over the bustle of thousands of fans and a closing NFL game last month, bellowing one name and two words.

“Mills!” Bill Belichick screamed from the Patriots sideline. “Double move!”

Late in the second half of an eventual 24-6 win, the Patriots defense had put the Panthers in a chokehold and was slowly putting them to sleep. But in the moment, Belichick sensed they might wriggle free and barked out a warning. So Mills ignored everything his eyes told him, his keys and his training, and heeded Belichick’s words.

Sure enough, his man – 1,000-yard weapon D.J. Moore – sped upfield, dipped right and then back upfield looking for a long ball. But because of Mills’ deeper zone drop, Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold couldn’t pull the trigger, and instead got spooked by the incoming rush before settling for a checkdown.

The play both explained and encapsulated the defensive rise of the Patriots, one driven by an increased rate of zone coverage, sharp coaching and steady play.

Oh, and the fact that if quarterbacks can’t throw at Mills, they’re in trouble.

“This year, we have great pass-rushers. So just playing a lot more zone, and having guys sit back with their eyes on the quarterback when he throws, it helps our team win,” cornerback Jonathan Jones told the Boston Herald. “It makes sense for them to play a lot more zone because the pass rush has been unbelievable.”

More surprising than the zone turn has been Mills playing outside cornerback almost exclusively this season. After signing him in free agency, the Patriots intended to use Mills as a do-it-all safety capable of playing in the box, covering the slot and occasionally manning the outside. Instead, due to Stephon Gilmore’s rehab from a torn quad and contract dispute, they tasked him with starting opposite J.C. Jackson until Gilmore returned.

Four months later, he hasn’t left.

According to a league source, Mills’ performance factored minimally into how the Patriots handled Gilmore’s situation, though it slightly strengthened their position late in the standoff. Looking back, even Mills admits his best performance came at the end of Gilmore’s tenure, when he shadowed Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin in Week 4. Mills limited Godwin to three catches that night, far fewer than those Jackson and Jones allowed shadowing their own Pro Bowl assignments, Mike Evans and Antonio Brown.

Godwin made one reception on a screen, and another after Mills had slipped. His last catch was a tip-your-hat play, with Brady dropping a dime over Mills’ shoulder near halftime.

“When you talking about that matchup, I knew that my team was depending on me,” Mills said. “Godwin was the top targeted guy then, a guy who Tom really depended on. So for me, I just knew this is what they brought me here for. I was locked in.”

Three days later, the Patriots shipped Gilmore to Carolina. And despite later losing Jones for the season, the Pats rank among the best defenses in the league. Best of all, since losing to the Bucs and trading Gilmore, they’re 7-1.

“We count on (Mills). We count on him to play well, and all those guys at corner,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “In this league, you won’t win many games if you don’t play well at the corner position.”

Mills has quietly unlocked the Patriots’ elite pass defense, one backboned by a secondary otherwise comprised of a Pro Bowl leader in McCourty, two rising stars in Jackson and Kyle Dugger, and a rock-solid veteran in Adrian Phillips.

If Mills was instead the corner last seen in Philadelphia – who ranked among the league’s worst man-to-man defenders in 2019 and was once targeted 21 times in a game – the Pats’ revival would have been impossible. He’d be a frequent target for quarterbacks scared from throwing at Jackson, a walking ball magnet. The Patriots defense would be good with the old Mills, not Super Bowl-caliber.

Here’s what changed: the zone pivot, a coaching effort to immunize him against double moves – a problem for him in Philly – and Mills’ football IQ accelerating his transition back to an old position within a new system.

And he’s only getting better, playing his best games since the Tampa Bay loss all during New England’s six-game win streak.

On Monday, Bill Belichick said he loved his playing style.

Though what Belichick surely loves most is how Mills has done his job, and how that job has allowed his defense to lose its best player of the past three seasons and not skip a beat.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.