The evolution of Matt Milano was easy to see last week against the Houston Texans.
With the Buffalo Bills nursing a 13-10 lead with less than two minutes remaining, the Texans had a third-and-goal play from the 8-yard line. Quarterback Deshaun Watson took the shotgun snap and eluded the pass rush of Jerry Hughes. Streaking across the middle toward the front-left pylon was tight end Ryan Griffin.
For a minute, it looked like Watson had a window to complete a go-ahead touchdown pass.
Milano, though, had other ideas. The second-year veteran closed the window and broke up the pass, forcing the Texans to attempt a tying field goal.
“We had three over two, three guys guarding two guys man to man,” Milano said. “I'm taking the first guy breaking inside. I kind of missed him at first, and then I saw him. I took a peak at the quarterback and then came back and just ran. We're taught if you're beat, run. Don't look at the quarterback. Try to get your hands up and make a play, (so I) just locked in and made a good play on the ball.”
Had the Bills gone on to win, Milano’s play would be looked at as one of the best of the season. It demonstrated his growth as an every-down linebacker.
“Myself and as a defense, we made a couple mistakes on that drive earlier. It's always just move on to the next play,” Milano said. “You can't let that pass play or whatever happened before in the game, affect you. You've just got to reload and get the next one.”
Milano spent the early part of this season losing snaps to veteran Ramon Humber. That rotation has stopped over the last two games, though, as Milano has taken every defensive snap in that time.
“It's nothing really that Ramon hasn't done, it's just more of a young player in Matt continuing to ascend, really, and grow and learn,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “He's still working hard. He still has a lot of room for improvement, but love the fact he's developing his areas that maybe weren't developed when we got him a year ago.”
Milano maintains that he didn’t take losing snaps to Humber as some sort of punishment.
“They were just coaching how they coach,” he said. “When I get my opportunity, I'm playing. I don't really have an opinion about what they do or how they put me in the game. If it's just special teams, I'm going to play that hard every play. So I really didn't think of it as a punishment.”
Call it whatever you want. The message was clear.
“Just from the standpoint of earning your spot and understanding that these spots don't come lightly,” McDermott said. “Not that Matt took it lightly. It also allows a young player to come off to the sideline and watch for a series or two, and see what's going on standing next to the coach.”
“Obviously, you learn from it. You're trying to figure out, ‘Why am I not the guy 100 percent of the time?’ ” added veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. “Everybody is different as far as how they need to be coached and what buttons you push to motivate them. That's lit something underneath him and I think he’s risen since that rotation. Now he's kind of solidified himself as a starter, but he understands that, 'I can't get comfortable.' … Some guys need that early in their career.”
That plan, or motivational ploy, is looking better and better with each passing week. Milano is now ranked 12th among all linebackers in overall defensive grade by the analytics website Pro Football Focus.
“Definitely just been in the groove,” Milano said. “Working hard in practice. That's basically what it is, throughout the week, just getting to know what they do and their tendencies and stuff. I'm really locked in right now.”
Milano has 42 tackles, his first career sack, three passes defensed and one interception in the first six games.
“To be honest, I'm not really worried about myself individually,” he said. “I'm just trying to win games as a team. Even if I do have a good game, I'm still ticked after the game because we lost. In my eyes, obviously I'm trying to make plays, but that's not my main goal. My main goal is to try to help the team win, whatever that may be. If it's being out there for 100 percent of the snaps, then that's what I got to do.”
Milano was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 3 for his performance against the Vikings, but followed that up with what might have been his weakest game against the Packers. As he’s grown more comfortable with the scheme, however, Milano’s game has blossomed.
“I’ve come a long way. I think a lot of guys are more comfortable now playing in the defense,” he said. “Last year was new to some people, including myself.”
The more reps Milano gets in the defense, the better Alexander sees him getting.
“Matt is a confidence player. As he gets more comfortable within the scheme and understanding what the coaches are asking of him, the better he feels,” he said. “He's a young player, so he's had some ups and downs with that, like with any young player. Once he's comfortable and knows what's going on, he's probably one of the best in the league.”