Matt Milano becomes the fourth Bills rookie to get the call to start for the guys that drafted him. After a successful career at Boston College, Milano was selected in the 5th round of the 2017 draft. While he’s been active in each game this season, his contribution through the first 3 weeks was confined strictly to special teams. He’s acquitted himself well in that role, recording 3 tackles while playing a majority of the special teams reps. A two-year starter at Boston College, Milano notched nearly 60 tackles each season, blocking 3 punts and adding 24 coverage tackles.
Last week against Atlanta, Ramon Humber, who happens to be the Bills leading tackler by a wide margin, broke his hand in the first half. That very hand was wrapped into a club coming out of the half, and Humber valiantly gave it a go on the opening drive of the second half before giving way to Milano. Despite being the team’s leading tackler through 4 weeks, Humber both looks and feels replaceable. Consider that, and also the fact that Milano was hand selected in the draft by Sean McDermott, who has thus far proven to be a master of building and executing his vision for the defense, and it’s not hard to project a scenario where, if Milano shows at all in Humber’s absence, McDermott rolls with his rookie LB on a full-time basis. With that in mind, here’s how Milano fared in his NFL debut at linebacker, thrown into the fire on the road against a Falcons offense featuring Davtona Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Matt Milano Series 1: (3rd quarter, 12:42 remaining)
Milano’s first snap at LB came very early in the second half, one play after Ramon Humber seemingly aggravated his broken club hand making a tackle on a Tevin Coleman 1st down run. With the Falcons showing 21 personnel, Milano lined up at wide left at OLB, and shifted inline when TE Levine Toilolo motioned into the formation. The play sees Matt Ryan in a 3-step drop, and while Milano is able to disrupt Toilolo’s route, he’s also late to his flat responsibility, and FB Derrick Coleman outflanks the defense, making an easy catch with room to operate. Both Milano and fellow rookie Tre White rallied well to make the stop and minimize the damage, but it was still an 11 yard gain directly at Milano. Credit where it’s due, as the guy did make it onto the stat sheet on his first defensive snap, but he’ll see on film that the Falcons offense got the better of him.
He looked much better in coverage on RB Devonta Freeman out of the backfield just two plays later, contributing to a Matt Ryan incompletion. On that play, Milano looked a lot more instinctive identifying the back out of the backfield, and was able to smother Freeman to the point Matt Ryan had to look elsewhere. He also looked very in sync with the rest of the the LB corps as they moved fluidly in response to another Loilolo motion. Overall, a much better play than his first attempt in coverage.
Milano was also on the field the very next play when Tre White scooped a questionable Jerry Hughes-induced fumble, and in the most Processy fashion returned it 52 yards for his first NFL score, and the first for the defensive TD under HCSMcD. Milano was sent on a blitz on the play, and what started as a promising pass rush ended abruptly when Devonta Freeman met the rookie in the whole and put him on the ground. But, just as White played to the whistle with his scoop and score, Milano also finished out the play strong, picking himself up and getting downfield to throw (we’ll admit, largely irrelevant) blocks as White streaked to the end zone. A plus play for keeping the motor running.
Matt Milano Series 2: (3rd quarter, 10:50 remaining)
Milano’s second series was largely uneventful. He was fairly ineffective on a pass rush, but did run well with Loilolo on a play-action, even if he got beaten with a savvy hand check and got caught chasing. With Poyer over the top, Milano was close enough in coverage to narrow the passing lane Ryan. He also rallied to the ball once the play went to the other side of the field, and had nothing to do while dropping into his zone but turn and watch Micah Hyde make a leaping pick of a Matt Ryan pass intended for Taylor Gabriel.
Matt Milano Series 3: (4th quarter, 12:00 remaining)
On the opening play of the next drive, Milano was either fooled by or too focused on the reverse action. With the ball going the other way, he found himself totally out of position, and Tevin Coleman ripped the middle of the Bills defense for 26 yards. It was one of the most explosive plays of the day for the Falcons, and Milano shares in the blame. Later on the drive, he looked smooth in his middle zone, passing off a receiver seamlessly, rallying to the ball with his hair on fire, with a wild “We got the ball!!” gesticulation. He also notched his second tackle, shedding a block while knifing through defenders as he chased Devonta Freeman to the right edge. Milano wasn’t perfect, but he met Freeman in the backfield, and got just enough of the running back’s leg to trip him up and hold the Falcons to just 4 yards. Milano was taken off the field for the remainder of the drive in favor of an extra DB, and the drive ended in the first passing touchdown the Bills defense has allowed this season. Can’t put any of that on Milano, though.
Matt Milano Series 4: (4th quarter, 4:35 remaining)
Milano took a solid angle of pursuit when Devonta Freeman cut back across the field on 1st down, then was off the field when Micah Hyde converted on a tip drill for his second interception of the day.
Matt Milano Series 5: (4th quarter, 3:06 remaining)
With the Falcons out of timeouts and in need of a touchdown, they came out throwing. Milano was in tight coverage on back to back plays where Falcons receivers dropped balls. When the Falcons threatened to score on their final series of downs, he once again acquitted himself admirably in coverage, helping the defense get off the field and securing the victory.
Milano certainly seems comfortable understanding where he’s supposed to be in the zone, and in identifying receivers, though he’s not quite yet putting himself in position to make big plays.
The bottom line is that it’s never ideal to lose your leading tackler to injury, and I’m sure the Bills would love to have Ramon Humber out there against the Bengals. That said, improved communication and attention to assignment has been the hallmark of Sean McDermott’s resurgent defense through the first quarter of the season. As one of McDermott’s handpicked guys, Milano should be able step in and keep things on track, as well as bringing the intensity and instinctiveness that made him a standout at Boston College. With the Bills shorthanded at LB, keep an eye on how Milano holds up. He played 94 percent of defensive snaps as a starter for the Eagles, but at 6 foot, 223 lbs, he may struggle at the point of attack against NFL linemen.