Film Room: Breaking Down Dee Milliner’s Recent Play and What It Means

Mike O’Connor examines the recent play and growth from Dee Milliner. Is he going to be the right player in the starting second corner spot?

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.

Play #1:

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.

Dee Trap

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.

Dee Trap 2

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.

Play #2: 

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.

Milliner Deep

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.

Milliner Deep 2

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 Deep 3

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. 

Play #3: 

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.

Milliner Open Up

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.

Milliner Turn

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.

Milliner Turn 2

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.

Play #4:

On this third and long play, Milliner faced off with Nick Toon. Toon is a larger target, and Milliner’s skills match up well against tight ends and bigger-framed receivers lacking quickness.  Milliner v Toon

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.

Milliner v Toon 2

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.

Milliner v Toon 3

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.

  • Frank Antonelli

    Eventually Millner will be better than that selfish prick Mevis. Guaranteed!

  • mike

    oy, still with the darrin walls stuff, huh?
    whether or not he is slightly more nfl-ready at the moment (and the coaches who watch him in practice every week seem to think he’s better as a fourth-string cb), his ceiling isn’t anywhere near as high as milliner’s. starting dee over walls is the right choice for the organization. putting walls in would be incredibly short-sighted.
    and anyway, walls can’t elevate, can’t tackle, and has sub-par speed. just as we should all have patience as geno figures out the pro game, we should also stick with milliner as he gets more comfortable. there will be more mistakes, but his upside is encouraging.

  • Whitney

    Cornerback could well be the most difficult position to play on the entire football field. Coming from college to the pros….please give the man a break. Did you all see Patrick Petersons first NFL game vs Steve Smith? Or what about Joe Hadens rookie year? Cornerbacks have to grow and you know Exactly who they are in their third year. Milliner is going to be just fine InshaAllah

  • Big Al

    I have tons of ideas for this stuff. It seems you have the permission and where with all to do this analysis. Would love to share some thoughts on Geno.. ex: he could have had about 5 more TD than he has…

  • Thanks for the read all, but-

    @mike: Most of that is just false. Walls struggles with his timing on elevation, but he can elevate, he has very adequate long speed, and he tackles very well. And short-sighted is the right idea, here. If you’re going to play to win, you play the better player regardless of age of upside.

    @whitney: Give the man a break? I’m praising his play in the first solid game he’s had. If anything, I’m jumping the gun to praise him. I only stay realistic because, well, that’s my job. If we waited for his third year to evaluate his progress, we wouldn’t be a very resourceful blog now, would we?

  • dave2220

    I’m more concerned with the tackling. It has Looked very shaky IMHO

  • twoshady18

    Milliner will be just fine in the long run and a major contributor in a year or two. in the short term…I personally like what i see from Walls better than Wilson. Sadly… Cro, Milliner, and Revis would have been a nice CB squad.

  • mike

    @michael o’connor
    on the td at the end of the 1st half in tennessee, walls barely got off the ground, he might as well have been kneeling. whether this is an issue of timing or vertical leap is immaterial to the effect on his defense.
    on 3rd and 17 from deep in pittsburgh territory, walls basically fell over without being blocked or even laying a hand on his man, leading to a first down, on a wr screen, on third and 17. additionally, the first rushing td surrendered in atlanta was entirely on darrin walls, who vacated his lane, got sucked in behind a crowd, and watched helplessly as rodgers walked into the endzone.
    all those mistakes, which were very very costly, came in the small number of games where walls has been relied on heavily. in fact, while the jets were able to stymie brady and brees with milliner on the outside, when they were forced to start walls opposing quarterbacks have completed 75% of their passes (80/107) for 7.9 yards per attempt. even with the cincy outlier, all of those numbers are better when milliner starts.
    what frustrates me the most about the way you guys talk up walls is that you just do it by asserting that he’s really good, that he’s nfl-ready, that he “tackles very well” and “has very adequate long speed.” the numbers tell a different story and to my eyes so does the tape.
    it’s no mystery why our “greatest defensive mind in the league” head coach has him sitting behind kyle freakin wilson. starting walls on the outside because of a perceived slight advantage over milliner would be short-sighted, but the move would also fail on its own merits, because walls is a major liability as a #2 corner, and i honestly don’t see why i have to strain so hard to make an obvious point.

  • Lidman

    I met Dee, down in Tuscaloosa, this past weekend. I told him Jet fans ‘believe in him’, but he’s ‘gotta pick his game up’.

    He was a bit shocked, but said: “I know, I’m working hard everyday”.

  • Lidman

    One thing he did say, in our brief conversation, was he never played so much single man coverage, at Alabama. He also said the caliber of NFL WR has been even a bigger jump than he thought it would be. He said: “everyone is just big and fast”.

  • @mike- I’m curious as to where you gathered these statistics. I highly doubt “the numbers” are better when Milliner is in, and besides, we all know stats can be misleading. Kyle Wilson isn’t the corner he’s looked like on the statsheet. And I’m not just claiming Walls is better, I’ve watched every NFL snap he’s taken on coaches’ film. I have the right to opinion to call him a better player, I’d say.

  • mike

    @ michael
    no one’s saying you don’t have a right to your opinion, dude.
    and those numbers were compiled by yours truly, i added up opponent’s passing numbers in the games which walls started as the #2 corner (@tenn, @atl, pitt). stats can be misleading, but they also have the strength of being facts. my point was that in games in which darrin walls has started on the outside, the jets secondary has gotten shredded, and that’s not an opinion.
    i’ve presented some evidence to back my point up. i’ve also stated my opinion that milliner has a much bigger upside. all i’m getting from you is argument by assertion, or stating that your expertise means you’re right. but i’m still waiting to see evidence, concrete evidence, that darrin walls is a viable #2 corner.
    this isn’t harrison playing over kendrick ellis, walls will never be a pro-bowler. you’re talking about benching the #9 pick in the draft in favor of a corner that many on the jets staff, and around the league, think is mediocre at best. he’s only been put on the outside when the jets have had no other choice, and when he’s out there it hasn’t gone well.
    i guess i just don’t understand why there’s so much faith in him. i’m a devoted daily reader here, but i tend to get shouted down by “post author” every time i ask why you guys think he’s so great. like i said, some evidence might shut me up.

  • @mike-

    “in games in which darrin walls has started on the outside, the jets secondary has gotten shredded, and that’s not an opinion.”

    That my friend, is 100% not true. How can you possibly say that after Milliner’s disasters vs the Bengals and subpar play in Week 1 and 2? Walls played excellent vs a still dangerous crop of Falcons’ receivers, and had a great second half in the one game he struggled in (Titans). The secondary, in my opinion, is a much better one with Walls in over Milliner. You also can’t claim yourself right after charting stats yourself and then not sharing the stats you collected of Milliner’s.

    We all study players differently and value different skills. It’s not fair to not base your argument just on opinion when both of the players we’ve argued have less than five games of starting experience. The point of this article wasn’t to deem Milliner incapable or obviously inferior; it certainly praised him just as much. The point was to cover the progress of a polarizing rookie who many people are curious as to how he’s doing, outside of just us Jet fans. Besides, I never said Milliner shouldn’t have the starting job, I said I think the decision could come back to haunt the Jets, then “we shall see.” Because I still believe he could improve enough this season to be a worthy starter. I just think it’s very borderline right now, that’s all. Sometimes certain positions and the players battling for the starting spot get dicey, and there’s no clear starter.

  • Sean F.

    I like Walls too, but I don’t think he’s “more NFL ready” than Millner. He’s also had his share of getting smoked by WRs when he’s had any kind of extended playing time.

    Milliner should play! Revis had his troubles too his rookie year

  • John C

    The Great Defensive mind did pull him from two games – so let’s not think they don’t know Milliner still needs work (lots of it). Milliner made two good plays last game (two more than he made in any previous game) but still has a ways to go. IMHO right now, Walls is probably better “technically” than Milliner, but I understand they will play Milliner, and it will (hopefully), pay off in the future, just as I understand that Geno’s their man, though I have no reason to think he’s any better than Simms at this point. It’s just the way it works – unless your Gholston, draft picks play, and UDFAs sit.

    I really do believe the Jets will not sign Cro this offseason, unless he works cheap – on their depth chart, Walls is the backup to Cro, so he’ll probably have a shot next year.

  • mike

    alright brother, since you asked:
    milliner has started five games this year, opponents aggregate passing numbers in those games: 105/197 (53%) for 1330 yards (6.75 per attempt) 9 TDs 5 Ints. (by the way, yes, this includes cincy)
    walls has started three games this year, opponents aggregate passing numbers in those games: 80/107 (75%) for 798 yards (7.46 yards per attempts) 7 TDs 0 Ints.
    i see you on twitter complaining about how unfair i’m being, don’t think i don’t see you

  • Didn’t really consider that an issue when tweeting, because I think this is unfair. Also, I had no idea that these stats you were telling me of the whole time were the ENTIRE DEFENSE’s stats…that makes your argument extremely flawed, frankly. Walls has been a more consistent player, and I believe that at least for this year, his skills are further advanced than Milliner’s, therefore he should probably be playing unless Milliner’s inconsistencies, which I’m not sure you even read considering your argument, are fixed quickly. I’m not even making a bold statement…I find it hard to believe that it garnered this argument in the first place.

  • John C

    Just sayin, but, Milliner started 5 games, but only finished 3 🙂 There may be stats that will support Mike’s conclusion, but not this one. Maybe “while playing” or “while their receiver was targeted”.

    I think I agree with Michael, about Walls, but can see that Milliner may round into form – maybe even this year. He has better measurable than Walls, but Walls seems a bit more “fluid” at this point (footwork, body, head”. When Rex plays an 3 safety set, it comes at the expense of a CB, and Rex doesn’t consider Walls a slot corner, which cuts his reps if he’s not starting.

  • mike

    there is conclusive evidence that the secondary plays worse with walls in the starting lineup. i also mentioned above several specific snaps where walls’ mediocrity cost the jets in a major way.
    it is obvious that walls only plays as a measure of last resort (i.e. when milliner is hurt or the game is still just too fast for him). walls goes in when the only other options are lankster and trufant. aside from that, he’s a dime corner. and if aaron berry hadn’t gotten hurt, he wouldn’t even be that.
    milliner has unfair physical talent, and the article you wrote basically argues that he’s putting the pieces together.
    my argument is, and always has been, that starting walls is a bad idea. my evidence is that both he and the defense he’s playing on have performed poorly when he starts.
    your argument appears to be that even though milliner has eye popping physical talent, and even though he’s showing signs of progressing, the jets should start a guy who might not make the active roster of half the nfl. and your evidence is that you say walls is a good player.
    last word’s yours if you want it bro. i’ll go out by saying that when milliner’s healthy, walls is an afterthought, and rex ryan kind of knows his way around when it comes to evaluating defensive talent.

  • I guess we have different opinions then, Mike, because I don’t think your data that measures the entire defenses’ performance proves anything. I think you’re using Rex’s opinion to fuel yours, and that’s fine.

  • Whitney

    Im not criticizing your blog im just saying in general. you do a good job.

  • Whitney

    Milliner is gunna be a top corner in this league. Nice that youre keeping up with his progress