BEREA: NFL rookies often believe they’re working hard enough when they should be working harder, and Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert fell into that trap earlier this season.
Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, secondary coach Jeff Hafley and assistant defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn urged Gilbert to improve his practice habits. Their words were reinforced as Gilbert reviewed practice film.
“I could see that I wasn’t giving 100 percent effort on a lot of plays,” Gilbert said Thursday. “I just tried to focus more on doing that.”
Gilbert, the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft, has changed the way he practices, and the results are evident. After struggling in the preseason and through the vast majority of the first five regular-season games, Gilbert has performed well the past two weeks and hopes to continue the trend Sunday when the Browns (4-3) host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-6).
“It might have took awhile,” Gilbert said. “But I’m finally getting down things that I need to get down — just prepare like a pro and take it to game day.
“It’s just practicing harder. I’ve been practicing a lot harder. Everyone here can tell you that it’s showing up.”
O’Neil is among those who can attest.
“I think he’s learning how to be a pro,” O’Neil said. “He’s taking the coaching from the practice field to the game field, and he’s playing with more confidence. He’s having fun with his teammates. I know everybody hates the word ‘process,’ but when you get a young corner in this league, especially in our system, it’s hard. It’s very hard. Justin has done a nice job. He’s strung together two or three good weeks of practice now, and he’s played solid for the past two weeks. We just need to continue to make sure he’s going in the right direction.”
The players have noticed, too.
“He’s starting to become more comfortable,” Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden said. “He’s starting to understand the defenses, and he’s practicing really, really well.”
Working harder has helped Gilbert better adjust to the style of play the coaching staff wants him to use. Press-man coverage is a staple of the scheme employed by O’Neil and Browns coach Mike Pettine. Gilbert rarely played press-man coverage at Oklahoma State, but the Browns believed he had the prototypical physical traits needed to excel in it.
“It just takes the player buying in and really wanting to do it,” Gilbert said. “As long as you want to do it and know you can do it and have confidence in yourself, then you will be able to do it. It’s not too hard, but it’s something that you definitely need to work at if you’re not used to.”
Gilbert received praise from his coaches and positive grades from ProFootballFocus.com after the Browns lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-6 on Oct. 19 and beat the Oakland Raiders 23-13 last Sunday.
“Over time, his focus is getting better,” starting cornerback Buster Skrine said. “He’s learning the game. Like we all say, sometimes you’ve got to take a couple punches before you learn exactly how to play the position, and he’s been doing a good job lately.”
Gilbert’s playing time had been cut earlier this season, but when undrafted rookie nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams sat out against the Jaguars with a concussion, Gilbert took advantage of the opportunity. He played 45-of-73 snaps (62 percent) and had a quarterback hit to go along with a pass defensed in Jacksonville. He played 42-of-82 snaps (51 percent) and had two passes defensed against the Raiders.
“[I’m] just trusting my technique and believing what I see and just taking chances and just making plays on the ball,” Gilbert said. “If I feel that something’s coming and I can get to the ball, then I’m going to do it instead of second-guessing myself because that can lead to a false step or bad eyes.
“It’s a confidence thing and a technique thing. Most of the routes I [encountered against the Raiders] were routes that we got all week in practice, so it was just like practice out there, flying around.”
Starting inside linebacker Karlos Dansby believes the light has turned on with Gilbert.
“He’s doing his part,” Dansby said. “He’s buying into what we’ve got going on. He’s getting better with his technique. It’s a process, and you have to be able to respect it. He’s starting to respect the process, and he’s starting to play better.
“To be a pro, it takes a lot, but he’s starting to understand. He’s starting to pay attention. He’s starting to observe, and he’s seeing how it’s done. He’s got all the talent in the world, but if you don’t apply yourself and understand how to, you won’t be successful.”
Gilbert is confident he has turned the corner, but he realizes he must prove it.
“You just have to be consistent with it, just not [let it] be a roller-coaster type of year,” he said. “Try to keep going up instead of going up and taking a few steps back and then going up again. I’ll just continue to try to climb high.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.