ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It was the highlight play of the New England Patriots’ best offensive drive last Sunday — a lofted, 26-yard pass from Tom Brady to a streaking James White, who easily corralled the ball at the Buffalo 8-yard line before immediately being tackled. The Patriots scored their lone offensive touchdown of the day on the next play.
The man covering him, Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano, hesitated on White’s stutter-step out of the backfield and was a step behind White throughout the play. The fact that the Bills were perfectly willing to leave their starting outside linebacker on an island with one of the league’s best receiving backs speaks volumes to the unique versatility Milano brings to their defense.
Milano’s coverage skills will be on display again Sunday when the Bills (3-1) travel to Tennessee for a matchup with the 2-2 Titans (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
On the pass to White, shown in the above animation via NFL Next Gen Stats, Milano recovered admirably to make a play on the ball. But before both players rose from the turf at New Era Field, Milano could do nothing else but raise his hands in equal parts frustration and astonishment once he saw the ball tucked securely in White’s arms.
In the big picture, Milano could learn from the play and prepare for the next. But in that moment, he was angry.
“Ultimately, he takes pride in himself,” Bills safety Micah Hyde said. “When he gives up passes, he’s pissed — he doesn’t like it and that’s what you want to see as a secondary guy with your linebackers.”
When the Patriots tried to exploit the matchup again on a critical third-and-7 in the fourth quarter, Milano ran step-for-step with White before breaking up the pass. The stop gave Buffalo’s offense one last opportunity to score.
“That’s Matt Milano, former safety back in his day,” Hyde said. “We don’t feel like it’s a mismatch with him on a running back or him on a tight end. We know he’s going to hold his own. … To see a linebacker doing that, it means the world.
“That’s just Matt Milano, he does a lot for our team, moving sideline to sideline, knocking people’s head off. That’s why we love him.”
A former fifth-round pick, Milano was indeed a safety when he signed with Boston College out of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Florida, converting to linebacker as a sophomore in 2014. The weight he’s added and speed he’s held onto give him the size and agility to cover tight ends and running backs.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he’s allowed nine catches on 11 targets to running backs and tight ends for 60 yards and a score this season. Though that completion percentage ranks second-highest in the NFL among linebackers who have been targeted at least 10 times, he’s been highly efficient in his coverage.
Among those linebackers, Milano’s average of 2.7 yards away from his matchup at the time of pass arrival ranks fifth-best. To no surprise, he forces a tight window (any instance where the nearest defender is less than 1 yard away from the receiver at the time of pass arrival) on 27.3% of his targets — the highest percentage in the NFL. The 2.1 yards after reception he allows is second-lowest in the NFL and his 63.6% coverage success rate ranks second-highest.
Buffalo uses him in the box and on the perimeter — proven by the 4,923.7 total yards he’s covered on the field this season, the fifth-most on the team regardless of position.
“He’s able to play in the box and be a traditional linebacker, but you can see the number of times we put him out in space and coverage,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said, “matching up on tight ends like he did a week ago against [Tyler] Eifert and then this week against arguably one of the top receiving backs in our league in James White. He gives us a lot of flexibility as a defense.”
Before breaking his leg in Week 14 last season, Milano allowed 12 total receptions to running backs and tight ends on 26 targets and his 65.4% coverage success rate was sixth-best in the NFL among linebackers.
Now fully recovered and in line for a contract extension this offseason, Milano is back to being, well, himself.
“I thought last season he was well on his way to a Pro Bowl year prior to that injury and he’s really, probably back in the form now,” Frazier said. “Coming into training camp, [he] still was a little bit behind physically because of the injury, still recovering from that, but he’s probably hit his stride now.
“He’s back to being Matt Milano and he gives us a lot of flexibility with things he’s able to do.”