The choice on who to do this week’s opponent scouting report on was certainly a tough one. The Buffalo Bills’ offense is statistically the worst in NFL history up to this point in the season but their defense is loaded with talent. Currently ranking as the third best defense in football, the Bills have many contributors such as Trent Murphy, Kyle Williams, Lorenzo Alexander, former Colt Jerry Hughes, Tre’Davious White, Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde.
That is a ton of talent right there but none of those guys intrigued me as much as inside linebacker Matt Milano.
Milano is a very underrated player and is the leader of the Bills defense. In only his second season out of Boston College, Milano has made a name for himself as a sure tackling, coverage linebacker. The former collegiate safety currently has 42 tackles, 6 tackles for a loss, 1 interception, and 1 sack. Last year against the Colts, Milano tallied his career high 11 tackles.
So what makes Milano such a good player on the Bills’ defense? Serving as the Thomas Davis in Head Coach Sean McDermott’s defense, Milano is the best coverage linebacker on the team. He is currently ranked as the 9th best linebacker in all of football according to PFF and has the 9th highest coverage grade among linebackers as well. So why am I worried about Milano for Sunday’s game? Let’s look at some film and find out.
Like I mentioned earlier, the strongest aspect of Milano’s game is his ability to play the pass. A former safety at Boston College, Milano understands proper depth in zone coverage and attacks violently downhill on underneath routes. In man, he’s very good at disrupting routes and staying even with whoever he is guarding. He is very solid athlete for a linebacker so he has the ability to make plays in all areas in pass defense. Colts’ receivers will have to be aware of Milano on underneath pass routes as he breaks up a lot of passes there.
Our first clip shows Milano (#58) in zone coverage attacking downhill. Notice how quickly he goes from reading the quarterback’s eyes to breaking on the football. This is an excellent play to not only burst out of his back drop but to also locate the ball and get his hands inside to break up the pass.
Our second clip again has Milano dropping into zone coverage. He floats back with Kyle Rudolph then comes up to defend the drag route. Milano is able to stick with the underneath drag route, even though the receiver is the NFL leader in receptions in Adam Thielen. Milano does a great job of staying with Thielen then is in perfect position to knock the ball away when it is thrown. Luck will have to be aware of Milano when checking down on Sunday.
Milano is not an elite run defender but he is a very good form tackler who rarely misses tackles. He understands gap discipline as well as he is often found filling the correct gap on run plays. He isn’t great at stacking and shedding blockers but he knows how to evade them and still make plays. His relentless effort and speed allows for him to make plays all over the field, even when he appears to be out of the play.
Our first clip shows how good of a run defender Milano is when he is kept clean. He fills the run lane very well here and breaks down his hips in the hole. When the running back tries to evade him, Milano is too quick and is able to bring him down for no gain. The Colts will have to get a body on Milano on Sunday in order to have any success running the ball. He is way too good when he is kept clean and unblocked.
Again here we see Milano fill a big hole and bring down the running back for a minimal gain. A lot of linebackers would struggle in this situation as it is a one on one in a relative open field. Milano though plays this run like a veteran as he calmly fills the hole and breaks down to make the tackle. Runners rarely make him miss in space. I need to reiterate just how important it is for the Colts to get a lineman on him on every run play. When he is left clean, the running game is rarely effective.
As I mentioned earlier many times, Milano is a very good athlete for a linebacker. He fits the modern day trend of a slimmer linebacker— he’s only 6’0” 223 pounds— who can fly all over the field. He can make plays on all three levels of the field and has a relentless motor that makes him so useful on every down. He is even a very effective blitzer as his quickness and speed help him get into the backfield in a hurry.
Our first clip here shows off how much ground he can cover sideline to sideline. Playing in zone coverage, he steps up as he notices quarterback DeShaun Watson begin to scramble. Still maintaining his zone discipline, Milano strafes down the line while keeping an eye on Watson. He then is able to run Watson down as he leaves the pocket and then limit him to a minimal gain. This type of sideline to sideline range is what defensive coordinators crave nowadays.
This next rep shows another reason why he shouldn’t be kept clean in the run game. Once he notices that its a run, he flies downhill. He is able to sidestep the fullback and accelerate to the ball carrier to bring him down for a loss. This is a very impressive, athletic play by the sophomore that results in a loss on the play. His athleticism makes this play possible.
Last positive clip for Milano but here is another area where he could impact the game on Sunday. The Bills don’t send Milano on many blitzes— mainly because they love him in pass coverage— but when he does blitz he is quite effective. Here against the Vikings, Milano comes on a delayed blitz. He is able to effortlessly sidestep the pass blocking running back and sack quarterback Kirk Cousins. This ability to blitz could show up against the Colts.
Where the Colts can beat him
I have mentioned many times in this piece just how good Milano is when he is left clean. But what about when he is not left clean and he’s actually blocked? Well that is where he struggles. Not the best at stacking and shedding blockers, Milano tends to struggle to disengage. This is no surprise for a linebacker is only weighs 223 pounds as he just doesn’t have the necessary strength or size to shed blockers consistently.
In this clip, you can see his struggles once engaged. Milano does a very good job of filling his run lane in this short yardage situation. The only problem is that he is driven back off the ball by the much bigger lineman. He ends up on his back by the end of the play, as the runner converts the first down right over top of him. Milano gives great effort and is excellent at avoiding blockers but definitely struggles to disengage once he is being blocked.
Milano is an excellent pass defender but he does struggle against play action. He tends to overcommit on play action and vacate the middle of the field when doing so. He has to be very aggressive in run defense so he can avoid blockers so this tends to lead to him losing depth on his zone drops. As a result, the middle of the field is open a lot of the time against this Bills’ defense after play action. The Colts would be wise to take advantage of this overaggressiveness.
This clip right here shows exactly what I was talking about. Milano flies inside on the playaction which vacates the middle of the field. This leads to a wide open throw on an intermediate throw into the vacated zone. Milano likely wasn’t going to be in position to make a play on this pass regardless but if he didn’t bite so hard on this play fake, he could have made this throw much tougher for Marcus Mariota. Andrew Luck would be wise to exploit this tendency on Sunday.
Inside linebacker Matt Milano is one of the more underrated players on a very good defense full of solid players. Milano is an athletic linebacker who excels in pass defense. When defending the run, he is always in the right position. He is one of the better linebackers in football at evading blockers and making plays for little to no gain.
Where the Colts can really exploit Milano is by making sure he always has a lineman on him in the run game and by using playaction to open up the middle of the field. Milano is great at avoiding blockers but struggles once he is engaged with them. The Colts be wise to utilize Quenton Nelson pulling to whichever side Milano is on in the run game as he will be able to get a body on him and drive him back.
Overall, Milano is a very solid player who the Colts will have to be aware of on Sunday. He is not without his flaws though. A gameplan centered around heavy play action and a pulling run game could help mitigate Milano’s strengths. The Colts’ are going to have their hands full with the Bills’ number 3 ranked defense in football and Milano is the centerpiece of that defense. It falls on Head Coach Frank Reich and quaterback Andrew Luck to find and exploit the few positive matchups they have in this game.