After Dee Milliner’s performance versus the Saints a week ago, some heralded him as a player who finally overcame the rookie hump to become a solid starter. On the other hand, some fans have stuck with the bust label that they prematurely gave him this season, because his game was somewhat overblown by a few splash plays. Both of these reactions are far too extreme to boast about after we have had such a small exposure to the rookie (only four games).
Here are some unbiased observations of the good and bad flashes he is still showing (his performance earned him a 1.0 Pro Football Focus Grade). Let’s break him down as a corner in four extremely telling plays.
A little stitch in Rex Ryan’s defensive playcalling is his love for mixing in trap coverage schemes with his regulation coverage schemes. A trap coverage typically consists of a defender appearing to play a different part of the play than he is really going to, like a corner faking to drop in zone in a Cover Four but really playing the flat, or a defensive lineman looking to rush the passer, but dropping off into an underneath zone coverage instead.
Why I am randomly explaining a trap? Well in this instance below, Milliner is playing in a classic Rex Ryan-trap. He has mimicked Kenny Stills’ route until he needs to make his move on his real assignment, which is Pierre Thomas rolling out to the outskirts of the flat.
Notice Dee’s lack of the reluctance we’ve seen from him all year as he powerfully drives off his first step coming out of his fake zone coverage. He’s allowed to shadow Stills so far off of his real assignment because he can watch Drew Brees’ eyes, when he’s sitting in the assumed zone. If he didn’t execute a cushion off of the line and ran with Stills’ every step, this trap would fail. With that said, his proper positioning and nice timing allows him to seriously contest this short pass that looks to be an easy, open dump-off. That’s exactly what he does.
Talk about timing. Not only did Milliner get to the point of the catch, but he was aggressive enough to jump it and risk a possible catch-missed tackle. However, Milliner’s unreal length isn’t going to allow this pass to be complete. It’s this kind of fearlessness that we need to see from Milliner to get the best out of the skills and tools he has refined right now, which are his instincts, positioning, physicality, and of course, his almost-unfair length.
On this second down pass play, the Saints ran a play action out of a “power” offensive formation up front, which initiated the run. Since the Jets ran a Cover Three, Milliner could afford to give Robert Meachem a steady cushion of ten yards in case of the surprise pass.
Since Milliner played in off-man coverage and has yet to make any sort of contact with Meachem, he can’t afford to be back-pedaling so far down the field where Meachem could simply run a go route and beat Milliner with speed through his transition. Instead, Dee properly sets himself up in a vertical stance where he can cut in on Meachem if the route cuts off inside, or he can turn his body to the right without losing much leverage if Meachem extends his route behind him and over. Most importantly, however, is that Milliner’s superb positioning an readiness allow him to still see Drew Brees while still eyeing Meachem in his peripheral vision.
About 7-10 yards later, Meachem has cut his route, but just to the degree of a skinny post. Thus, Milliner’s planning allows him to make a play on the ball. The ball has been thrown at this point in the above frame and Milliner is still not very close to Meachem, but since he saw Drew Brees going through the motion the entire time, he’s once again used precise timing. Notice how he has only gingerly rounded off his coverage from where he was in the previous picture (marked by the green circle) so that he wouldn’t be thrown off if Meachem changed directions again for an obscure but still plausible late double move.
Milliner’s prime decisions in the complicated coverage of Meachem on this play allowed him to swiftly undercut the throw. While it wasn’t a very good throw by Brees (a bit late), that’s not Milliner’s issue since he saw when Brees threw the ball. Whenever Brees was going to zip it, he was going to be ready. Ball skills were one of Dee’s strengths coming out of Alabama, but he was never great at actually making the interceptions that are harder than others. He still made not contact with this throw, however, and Antonio Cromartie intercepted it off the tip for a would-be turnover for the Jets’ defense had it not been for Antonio Allen’s defensive holding call.
Now that we’ve gone through two immaculate plays from the rookie, it’s time to look at what he’s still not getting.
Milliner is once again in man coverage with Meachem on this first half play shown below. Since Milliner never perfected his backpedal in college, he’s relied on keen instincts and proper side-stepping, as shown here.
As Meachem approaches Milliner, the cornerback is giving him the outside route as he shifts diagonally, but into the middle of the field. In short, he’s daring Meachem to challenge him on the boundary, which is totally fine. Nothing has gone wrong yet. Next, things start to go awry.
When Meachem’s route takes Milliner head on so that the corner can’t make contact on either his direct left or right side, he’s forced to run with Meachem instead, which challenges his positioning. He could have escaped this issue, but he doesn’t go about it correctly. Instead of trusting himself to make a fluid turn with his hips, Milliner leans into the inside lane, therefore guessing that that’s where Meachem’s route will take him. Not approaching Meachem to make appropriate contact and obstruct his route is passable, but I can’t say the same with how Milliner tried to approach this one. With this turn he does, he’ll have to either poorly adjust to a route on the sideline or a hook, or he’ll have to awkwardly turn his entire body around to face an inside route.
When Meachem came to a halt in his hook route, Milliner is predictably left to tail off because he was busy turning his body while Meachem was awaiting the Brees’ throw. As a result, the Saints managed an easy pitch and catch for a first down.
Unlike his approach in covering Meachem, the shiftier receiver of the two, Milliner comfortably stepped out of his cushion in off-man to body Toon a bit to further pressure him to the boundary.
Because of his physicality and speed, Milliner is running step-for-step down the sideline with Toon. This is perfect coverage on the play so far. I usually like to see corners turn when they’re shoulder-to-shoulder with their opponent, because it allows them to have confidence in not losing leverage when they turn around to the quarterback (or the incoming pass) for the first time. Milliner does so here very nicely.
Next, it’s kind of hard to judge what was going on with the rookie. He was in excellent coverage to force an incompletion, yet for some reason, he mistimed his jump to play the ball (he probably didn’t even need to high-point the ball with such good coverage). The marked circle above is where the ball hits Toon almost in stride, but Dee is trying to make his attempt for the ball here…about a second and a half too early. This is a common rookie play, to see them lose confidence in their coverage and feel desperation, but it’s certainly frustrating when the skills are on display until the play’s finish. Luckily, Toon dropped the pass.
So what is there to make of the inconsistent, but flashing rookie? Well, Milliner is showing signs that he’ll tackle certain facets of his game before starting to grow as a complete corner. He already has very good, raw instincts and length to go with positioning and timing. Yet, he’s shown to be constantly hindered, even when excelling with the strengths in his game, because of the overlapping skills like adjusting to routes, turning his hips efficiently, and awareness in coverage.
There’s even reasoning behind why Milliner has seemed to “wow” us for brief periods and then kills the team within minutes. His lack of experience can be blamed for some drastic inconsistencies in his game. When I say drastic, I’m really stressing that word, too. At times, the rookie looks fearless and confident in his skills, resulting in good, instinctive play. Of course, he’s looks so afraid of making mistakes in coverage in the same games that he flashes that he’s reluctant with every aspect of his game, which holds him back significantly.
Another major question with Dee is his inconsistent physicality. In a defensive scheme like Rex Ryan’s that demands consistent trust in one’s physical abilities, which strictly targets the members of the secondary, one must know when to exert force on receivers and when not to. Often, this applies to reckless players who are too “grabby” in coverage. Milliner, however, simply doesn’t know when to use his physicality versus opposing receivers. He can manhandle receivers and send them off their course, all while doing it legally. When inconsistency haunts his game as often as it has though, he’ll suffer visible lapses when he won’t blend in his physicality at all on plays when he clearly needs it.
Overall, there’s a good player in Dee Milliner waiting to get better with every snap of NFL football. The challenge for the Jets is how long they’re willing to wait on him. He looked very solid versus the Saints before the Jets’ bye week, even with a few mistakes. With his play pattern, he could come out and look like the same player who was benched twice this year because he doesn’t give the Jets’ defense a chance to win the next game, however. Rex Ryan has shown that he’ll start him continually regardless, so they better hope he keeps refining his skills and consistency quick as the Jets’ pin their ears back and hone in on a playoff spot. In my opinion, with a more NFL-ready player in Darrin Walls sitting on the bench, this decision to start the rookie might come back to haunt the Jets. We shall see.