Rookie linebacker Matt Milano, while green, offers the most athleticism of all of the linebackers on the Buffalo Bills roster. When given the opportunity to see the field, he consistently put himself around the ball. Milano is that quick twitch athlete that defensive coordinators want on the field at all times to defend the modern day passing game.
Buffalo has struggled when opposing teams attack with 3×1 or 3×2 empty set formations. In these situatons, Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier loves to play his quarters coverage. This call often leaves the LB Ramon Humber matched up with running backs or wide receivers in the slot.
As I have covered in recent weeks, teams are spreading the defense out with empty and trips sets and attacking LB Preston Brown to the passing strength (3 WR side) and attacking LB Humber on the backside (1 or 2 WR side).
This occurred very early in the week 13 matchup against the Patriots. Brady came out and attacked LB Ramon Humber by putting Danny Amendola in the slot. In a nutshell, Humber is supposed to play the WR on any in- or out-breaking route, then pass him on to the neighboring zone. If the receiver runs vertical, then he is supposed to reroute to help the safety who will in turn pick him up. Amendola breaks inside, and Brady quickly hits him. Buffalo is ok with giving this sort of play up here and there; they like this coverage because it helps them protect any deep plays. Humber’s athleticism is average which limits what Buffalo can do with coverage in these situations. They do not like to play man coverage against 3×1 sets, because then Humber will be typically matched up against a running back. So, after Humber was attacked early, Frazier and the staff inserted Matt Milano.
Early in the season I worried about Milano’s key and diagnose skills versus the run, his ability to read his keys, diagnose the play and carry out his assignment. But after the Buccaneers game all of that worry went out the window.
In the second quarter, Frazier made the correct move to send out LB Milano, and the Patriots wanted to test him in the run defense department. By now he has a good grasp of the defense; there are no excuses. The Patriots bring out 12 personnel and run power, Milano gets downhill, stacks, and scrapes down the line of scrimmage, saving a possible touchdown.
Pin and pull-Milano scrapes and quite possibly saved a TD. pic.twitter.com/FSIeOhu4nC
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) December 5, 2017
As I mentioned earlier, his athleticism allows Frazier to open up his playbook a little. He obviously can carry out the responsibilities that Humber can in zone-like coverages. Milano is to the weakside of this empty set. He backpedals, gaining depth while carrying WR Keenan Allen vertically, then passing him on to the safety and corners. Then he gets his eyes on the running back, who is running a pivot route right into his zone. He drives downhill as Rivers unloads the pass to the wide side of the field.
With Milano in the game versus the Patriots, the Bills play a different coverage on third down. Instead of playing their normal quarters coverage against an empty set, they play cover 1 man. The Bills send out their 3-3-5 personnel (3 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers and 5 defensive backs), a grouping they utilized heavily in their win against the Chiefs.
Brady and company run their patented slant/flat route combination into the boundary. Brady’s primary target is RB White (#1 receiver to the bottom), who is matched up with Milano. This is a matchup that isn’t likely if Humber is in the game.
Milano shows off his awareness by getting into the hip pocket of White, so as to not be picked off by possible rub route from the slot. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who is in a two point stance near the line of scrimmage, is the ‘rat’ defender. His job is to drop underneath, reroute any crossing patterns, but ultimately read the QB. He does just that; he drops into the passing lane and eliminates White.
Milano only played in 22 snaps against the Patriots but he had his typical flashes around the ball. Early in the fourth quarter Frasier again trusts him to be manned up against White. The Patriots are faced with a 3rd and 3 situation and they send out another empty set. Brady is dead set on getting the ball to White but Milano does a great job of staying with the talented back.
Pre-snap, Milano is heads up on White, so post-snap White takes his stem slightly outside. As he is driving upfield and approaching contact with Milano, White knows the rookie LB is going to utilize his hands, so he chops down. In college, Milano had a tendency to peek at the QB at the top of routes to see if the ball was incoming, and it almost looks like he wants to here.
But instead, as White hits the top of the route and slightly separates, Milano realizes that he doesn’t have time to do that. Instead, he gets into the best trail technique he can, then when White turns to look for the ball.
Milano then closes the distance as the ball comes in, and it hits him in the hands for the near interception.
The Bills sit at 6-6 and, regardless of their actual chances at making playoffs, they need to get Milano in the lineup. He has served his time on special teams, made plays when thrown into the game, and even held his own when needed as a spot starter. Entering the final quarter of the season, the Boston College alumnus knows the defense and his responsibilities, so now he can just play fast. As a run defender he may not be where the team wants him to be. There will be times where he will not be able to disengage from offensive linemen, but there is no doubt that he will not stop fighting until he brings the back down.
With Humber on a one year deal, it is obvious that Milano may not only have a higher ceiling than Humber, but that he is also a larger part of the team’s future. Word is he may get the start this weekend, and most of us believe it is well overdue.