Getty Images

FRISCO, Texas --   "It's hard," Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said last week. "When you play at cornerback and at quarterback, everyone sees what's going on at those two positions. When you're watching at home on TV, it's easy to evaluate those positions."

Quinn said the quote above after Cowboys second-year cornerback DaRon Bland, who leads the NFL with eight interceptions and five pick-sixes -- the NFL single-season record -- was torched for the first time this season in Week 13. Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl wide receiver DK Metcalf racked up 108 yards and two touchdowns on three catches in the first half of a 41-35 Cowboys win with Bland as his primary defender. The 24-year-old allowed more touchdowns that Thursday night (two) than he has the rest of the season (one).

Quinn rotated Gilmore onto Metcalf in the second half, and Metcalf totaled just 16 yards and a touchdown on two catches. On Sunday, Gilmore went wire-to-wire on Eagles No. 1 receiver A.J. Brown, frustrating him all night long in a 33-13 Cowboys defensive masterclass. The 33-year-old five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro maintained that level play for the entirety of "Sunday Night Football," forcing a fumble and limiting Brown to 80 yards on seven catches as the primary defender in coverage, per TruMedia. Gilmore is usually a mild-mannered guy, but Brown calling him old fired him up.

"It was more how he said it," Gilmore said Wednesday, adding that some curse words were a part of the aggressive tone Brown used while mentioning the "old" label at the beginning of the game. "It lit a fire in me. Some of my teammates kid about it a lot because a lot of the people that I came into the NFL with aren't in the league anymore. It's an honor to still be playing the game at a high level and having fun."

Pro Bowl wide receiver CeeDee Lamb is one of those teammates, but that adjective isn't coming up out of nowhere. There were only 20 active players remaining in the NFL from the 253-player 2012 NFL Draft class at the start of the 2023 season: Gilmore was the 10th overall pick out of South Carolina. The Buffalo Bills, the Cowboys' Week 15 opponent, were the ones who drafted him.

"Yeah, I mean he is ah...," Lamb said while laughing Thursday. (He almost called Gimore old on the record.) "He ain't old, he's just very experienced. He's definitely a guy, I've said plenty of times, like he can still move. The age is just the age, you can't really go back on that. Mentally, he's still there and physically, he can come up and make those big plays and make big stops and still be able to travel to your best receiver. Shoutout Gilly for that. I appreciate him for that. I tell him thank you every day." 

Gilly made one of the biggest defensive stops in the win against the Eagles following defensive tackle Fletcher Cox's strip-sack of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott turning into a scoop-and-score touchdown for rookie defensive tackle Jalen Carter. The Birds began to build momentum. However, Gilmore essentially extinguished the last glimmer of hope the Eagles had with a sound tackle of wide receiver DeVonta Smith on fourth-and-8 at the Cowboys 30-yard line for a gain of one and a turnover on downs. 

"It depends on the distance in terms of how far can I be off (the line) knowing that we still have to make this stop," Quinn said. That's part of [Gilmore's] unique, special sauce of knowing how far he can be off. He has just very good awareness and understanding of those routes. Those are the things that are hard to coach because he has a unique aspect of this route and to come up in this moment. Those are the things that are hard to train somebody on, and he has it in full effect."

"I mean, his patience, his his intellect, his understanding," head coach Mike McCarthy added Thursday, gushing when describing how Gilmore thrives today. "Really, I think it's definitely a part of the game you have to be. ... Experience plays into that. It's definitely not for the inexperienced because there's things that go on in the course of the game and there's potential for big plays on either side. If you watch Stephon play, that's what he is. He has as great understanding what the offense is trying to do based on pre-snap personnel and that definitely plays into it. Just like anything, if you are going to travel with someone you got be able to go inside too and play. So it's not only understanding what they're doing, but a complete understanding, schematically, of what we're doing on defense. He's that guy."  

The numbers back up Lamb's, Quinn's and McCarthy's assessments of the 33-year-old. Gilmore's 59.9 passer rating allowed as the primary defender in coverage this season is the eighth-best in the NFL among 40 players who have had 65 or more passes thrown their way. It's not quite the 31.7 passer rating Gilmore allowed when he took home 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors with the New England Patriots in 2019 at age 29, but he's having a similar impact. That caused his head coach to compare him to an older NFL Defensive Player of the Year cornerback whom he coached as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers: Hall of Famer Charles Woodson.

"I think it's so cool to watch Stephon play at the level he's playing at, but to have the success at this point at his career is great, too," McCarthy said. The most recent (example) would be Charles Woodson. (Two-time Pro Bowl corner and current Cowboys defensive backs coach) Al Harris played a lot of years. I go back to my first year (as an offensive quality control coach with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993), and we had (four-time Pro Bowler) Albert Lewis and (two-time Pro Bowler) Kevin Ross. You have these unbelievable players that are playing at that level, that position. I think it's small numbers (at that age)."   

How Gilmore keeps his body running like 'a Lamborghini'

The biggest tweak Gilmore has made over his 12-year career isn't the way he trains or the way he plays but rather the way he eats and what he puts into his body. 

"I don't really eat red meat, and I don't eat dairy," Gilmore said. "I kind of think of it like this: you can't put (regular, unleaded) 87 gas in a Lamborghini. You have to put the right gas in it to get it to go. That's my whole mindset when I'm talking about eating clean."

Some of the staples of his augmented pallet include chicken, rice and vegetables. On game days, Gilmore keeps it simple: spaghetti with marinara sauce without meat and without cheese.

"Just noodles and sauce," Gilmore said.

He has also taken some of the Cowboys' younger defensive stars under his wing when it comes to diet and conditioning. 

"I just love how humble and how professional he is," McCarthy said when asked what he appreciates about Gilmore that he didn't know about him until he coached him. "You always respect players from the other side of the field, but you don't know about him them personally. He's been awesome. Him and Brandin (Cooks), two veteran guys with a lot of pelts on the wall, came in here and just engage with the locker room within their own personalities. It has been really cool. I love him when he's talking to a CeeDee Lamb,  even the young corners. You can see right away. I think the day he signed, he and (Pro Bowl cornerback) Trevon Diggs were in the weight room the next morning. So he has that credibility. He gives back. He's always talking ball with the younger players. He's relatively a quiet person, but he's engaged and connected with our locker room right away. That's impressive."  

All-Pro edge rusher Micah Parsons, who co-leads the NFL with 82 quarterback pressures and is first in the league in quarterback pressure rate (20.1%), is also one of those players Gilmore is mentoring. 

"I would say from the very beginning, Gilmore has gotten Tre better, Bland better, and everyone he's met, even me," Parsons said. "We talk about body-breaking and everything he doesn't eat and what I do and how I started doing the stuff he's doing. He's the best person we could have added to our team when it comes to the defense, so really grateful he decided to come here and add to this team."

However, Parsons isn't fully on board with Gilmore's dedication to the diet. He was also shook up by seeing Gilmore eat sauceless noodles in training camp.    

"I think just that he's nuts," Parsons said Thursday when asked about Gilmore's eating advice. "I don't know if I'm ready for his type of commitment, but I think from the changes I've made, it has been better. There was a time during training camp, and there's not a lot of food options in Oxnard, and I came into the lunch one day. The kitchen staff they cooked the noodles again in the pan. I saw Brandin Cooks and Gilly eating fried noodles. It wasn't like stir fry. It was just cooked noodles because they didn't want to eat cheese or cream or anything. They just ate warmed up noodles. Just straight noodles. Not even butter noodles. I saw crispy brown noodles and I said, 'You guys are nuts.' I think I went to order Popeyes. I said these guys are too crazy, I got to get some Popeyes."

He conceded that some dietary concessions have been made thanks to Gilmore's influence. 

"I cut down on cheese a little bit," Parsons said. "I keep everything organic. Almond (milk). I don't really drink whole milk or 2%. I keep everything as clean as I can. I incorporate veggies. I eat a lot of fish now. A lot of fish and stuff like that rather than steak and stuff."

Up next on Gilmore's plate is Bills three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Stefon Diggs. His 87 catches (tied for seventh-most in the NFL) and 993 receiving yards (12th in the NFL) have him in line for his fourth consecutive season with over 100 catches and 1,000 receiving yards, tied for the second-longest streak in NFL history. Lamb has one piece of advice for a fellow top-tier receiver should Gilmore be playing "match coverage," aka following Diggs all around the field Sunday afternoon in Buffalo. 

"Don't poke the bear, don't poke the bear," Lamb said.