Six days ago at FedExField, Justin Gilbert made his NFL debut. It was on national television. It was on Monday Night Football. It couldn't have been more memorable.
Gilbert started the game opposite of Joe Haden and was tasked with guarding an arguably top-10 receiver in the league, in Pierre Garcon. During the game, Gilbert blanketed the Redskins receiver, flourished in open field tackling, and when Washington thought about testing him deep down the field, Kirk Cousins was forced to throw the football elsewhere. Gilbert looked like a starting NFL cornerback.
Late Saturday night in the Browns' locker room, Justin Gilbert had the exact opposite feeling. St. Louis made it a point to attack Cleveland's rookie cornerback. With Haden and Buster Skrine sidelined, the Rams' game plan worked. Gilbert was caught sagging too far of the receivers several times. His tackling was sloppy. Receiver's were able to shake the athletic number eight overall pick.
The 22-year-old Gilbert didn't have to elaborate much to reporters about the disappointment he felt.
"I didn't make plays when I needed to," said Gilbert. "That's pretty much it."
The play that will stick out the most, and needs the most correction from Gilbert, happened with three minutes left in the second quarter. It was third-down and two and Gilbert was locked in playing press man coverage against reserve wide receiver Chris Givens. Gilbert was unable to jam Givens, who broke free on an in-route towards the middle of the field.
Givens caught the pass and Gilbert wasn't far behind him. An attempt to push the Rams receiver out of bounds or a shoestring tackle would have been acceptable. Instead, Gilbert tried to strip the football and barley attempted to make a tackle. Given's weaved his way past the defense for a 75-yard touchdown. It put the score at 20-0 and even sent a few fans heading towards the exits. The Browns can deal with Gilbert and a few growing pains, but they need the cornerback to play fundamentally sound football.
Browns head coach Mike Pettine raised a good point about Gilbert in his postgame press conference: teams are going to continue to throw Gilbert's way. Opposing quarterbacks come in to games on Sunday's knowing they'll get very minimal chances of beating Joe Haden down the field. Every throw Haden's way has to be calculated.
Quarterbacks the Browns face during their first three games – Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco – will review this tape of Gilbert and be more enticed to try pick on the rookie. Now it's up for the rookie to prove offenses wrong and make them pay.
"Every time a receiver runs a route, I have to expect the ball," said Gilbert.
"I think he has to know that that's what the NFL is going to be all about for him, especially early," said Pettine. "He lines opposite – once we get Joe back which we should this week, it's going to be more of the same. It's a good learning experience for him…He played well against Washington (on Monday night), but I think at the corner position more so than most, it is a 'what have you done lately' business. He needs to be more consistent week in and week out."
Part of that consistency will come with mentally flushing out parts this game against the Rams. Gilbert needs to take lessons away from the game, but he has to make sure he's not overthinking out on the field. The process of moving forward will heavily come from listening to his veteran teammates. Safety Tashaun Gipson plans on chatting with Gilbert this week.
"Keep your head up, he's a good player, and this was his first true outing, and that comes with time you know, I guess you have to crawl before you walk, and just getting him game ready," said Gipson. "I think in the coming weeks and by Week One, and as the season progresses, he will continue to get better as a player. It's totally different from college to the pros, and I think he is self-aware."
Expect Justin Gilbert to play into the third quarter on Thursday against the Bears. Every bit of seasoning the rookie gets before Pittsburgh, the better.