Sometimes in life, there is a silver platter floating in front of you. Circumstances work that way. Some people fumble the opportunity. Others seize the chance and run with it.
On Monday Night Football against the Redskins, rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert grasped onto the opening in the starting lineup. And he thrived.
Tasked with guarding Washington's speedy receiver, Pierre Garcon, Gilbert held the veteran in check. In his 23 snaps, Garcon not only walked away without a catch, he was not even targeted once – Gilbert was practically glued to him. That was the case for other players too.
In the press man coverage, Gilbert mirrored receivers just how Cleveland has been coaching him, getting his hands in pushing position right at the release.
Gilbert was all over slot receiver Andre Roberts on an out route. He batted a ball down intended for Evan Royster at the goal line, preventing a touchdown. And when the Redskins thought about testing the rookie deep, he was right next to one of the Redskins' deep threats, Aldrick Robinson, step-for-step. Cousins looked deep, but turned down the challenge to beat Gilbert.
A question mark surrounding Gilbert when he first entered the NFL, was how much of a physical tackler would he be? In his first NFL game, those concerns have all but been laid to rest.
The Redskins came right at Gilbert on the very first play of the game. Gilbert was ready for the challenge. He showed terrific closing speed and threw 240-pound tight end Jordan Reed to the ground immediately. Gilbert logged two other open field tackles. Some rookies play tentatively in taking down receivers. Gilbert was not hesitant to make a physical hit, at all.
ProFootballFocus.com listed Gilbert as logging 36 snaps, the fifth most of any player on defense. It probably won't hit Gilbert until practice this week how meaningful the reps alongside other starters Joe Haden, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson will be.
Safety Jim Leonhard has spent four years under coach Mike Pettine. He knows what works in the scheme, and what doesn't. The veteran had glowing things to say about Gilbert following the Redskins game. Even in the short span of time Leonhard's been with the Browns, he can sense something exceptional about Gilbert.
"He went out there and competed – went up and challenged receivers," said Leonhard. "He has grown. Obviously, [he was] coming off some injuries and missed a little bit of practice time, little bit behind from where he wants to be, but I thought for his first action he looked pretty good."
However athletic and talented Gilbert may be, the learning curve is just beginning. During his first few games facing live action, there will be several plays that he'll want back.
In the second quarter, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins marched the Redskins nine-plays for 56 yards and a touchdown. Earlier in the drive, Gilbert should've had an interception while guarding receiver Ryan Grant. He didn't turn his head quickly enough on the route, but he was in the right position to create a turnover. Washington was able to complete the second-down pass for 15 yards. Gilbert did have one defensive holding penalty, too, and needs to work on using his body more than his hands down the field.
Justin Gilbert looked like an NFL starting cornerback against the Redskins. With more seasoning, there's a chance he won't be leaving the field much once the regular season begins in Pittsburgh.