New York Jets: Breaking The Dee Milliner Narrative

Mike O’Connor breaks down how Jets’ cornerback Dee Milliner is silencing the doubters with some great football.

Many things in this world are foolish, football-related or not. The Jets’ beat writers, half of CBS’ announcers, ESPN over-saturating every news story, not being able to find some decent internet on vacation to sit down and write an article, etc. Lately, a new frustration has risen to the top of things that are simply foolish.

That would be the negative elucidation of rookie cornerback Dee Milliner throughout the 2013 season. With the wide-world of sports-Twitter and a whole lot of negative reporting for publicity, every professional sports player is a possible victim. It’s not fair by any means, but there’s nothing we can do to change it.

Why was this situation so at large from the start, however? In an over-saturated world of sports’ reporting, aggressive hot takes and narratives are what keep some interested and the debate wheel flowing. These narratives tend to be overblown when events play out like the story everybody has envisioned, so even what’s untrue or simply flawed about a sports related issue will be tossed aside with the momentum the narrative has going.  What people expect to hear or want to hear, they will hear. They won’t listen to what’s real.

See, after the 2009-2010 Jets’ run as an AFC power under a very brash coach, people want the Jets to fail. When the Jets do fail, people want to see it in the most straight-forward, humiliating ways. Losing games is one thing, but having your first pick in a decisive draft struggle is a whole new fantasy for the media to pounce on. After Sheldon Richardson lit the world on fire, it’s no surprise Milliner’s predictable narrative was already being written. Overreactions from the Jets’ fanbase and beat writers helped write the first few chapters, even.

Remember Eric Fisher? Yes, the 2013 draft’s first overall pick. Of course you do, but I ask the rhetorical because it’s relevant to this exact situation. He’s been a liability for the Chiefs at times this season, and he’s struggled to the extent that he’s definitely their worst lineman on only a fairly sturdy starting five. Luckily for Fisher, there wasn’t the New York history and spotlight that set him up for a narrative.

Milliner received some of the worst jabbing from sports media that I’ve seen in my short lifetime. In fact, the extremity of it became a reputation for him. Yes, a rookie who was held out of most of summer practices due to injury, was thrusted into a starting role from day one, and plays one of the most difficult positions in football in terms of the adjustment phase was thrashed about online as a leading scapegoat whenever the Jets’ season took dips. This, my friends, was foolish. Dee Milliner isn’t tweeting his angst. He’s not dishing the media excuses or throwing anybody under the bus. In short; he’s not fueling the fire by letting his narrative become closer to him. He’s silencing those who were foolish the classic way; he’s playing great football.

The Breakdown

Milliner has really been building up his skills all season, but he’s just recently translating them to confidence and therefore, some consistency. Even in the beginning of the season when his struggles were most highlighted, the rookie flashed some of the tools that made him so desirable this past April. His performance against the Saints was a good one, but it was a week mixed in with the fray of his other poor showings. It was Week 14 versus Oakland when Milliner really turned up his game to the necessary level, and it only got more impressive as the regular season’s end drew closer.

In the past two weeks, Milliner has done more than start to silence his doubters. Instead, he’s convincing people of his large potential already. Josh Gordon is one of the most dynamic receivers in the league, and Milliner did more than just hold his own against him. The same went for Mike Wallace versus the Dolphins. To see precisely what skills he’s enhanced at the end of this season, let’s take a look:

Positive Flashes

Play #1Milliner v Gordon 2

A lot has been made this season of Milliner’s soft approach with receivers and his inability to effectively press. While a strong press corner can be awesome, I think it’s been overdone in regards to Dee. Any corner who has a nice mimic to a receiver’s get off (as shown above) and can get physical while doing so has a perfect platform of skills to work with at the line of scrimmage. With an opposing receiver like Gordon who sets up defenders so well to bite for his routes, every step and flow is crucial. Not to mention, having a corner who may not excel in press but uses the boundaries well is so nice that being able to press is really just icing on the cake. Notice above how Milliner’s stance, feet, and outward arm fight forces Gordon to the sideline to continue the route properly. A corner who would simply run with Gordon would give up a much bigger radius for the throw (which is going to be a comeback route, spoiler).

Milliner v Gordon 2.2

This is more great stuff from the rookie after starting the play off well. By forcing Gordon to the sideline, Dee obviously knows that with his tight positioning, the only extension to the route from Gordon can be further downfield or coming back to the ball. Thus, he can align himself accordingly since Gordon won’t be coming into the middle of the field. With those route extensions as the only possibilities, Milliner knows when to turn without seeing the quarterback’s throw because he watches Gordon start to open his body up. Additionally, Gordon’s eyes are already locating the ball, so football intelligence infers that a quick turn must be made by the corner to obstruct the pass attempt. To make the quick turn, Milliner is a little sloppy with his footwork, but he still does it timely and while making subtle contact with Gordon to maintain leverage (not shown above, but his left arm is moving towards him and will latch on).

Milliner v Gordon 2.3

A great play is only great with a successful finish. As shown above, Milliner is clearly a more confident and therefore and more decisive player around the point of the catch. We saw a lot of reluctance throughout the year in him in basically every aspect of his game. Seeing it from him is very rare now. Milliner does an excellent job flowing with Gordon because of the efficient work he did in the previous two images, and makes a powerful deflection. His length is also noticeable in its full dominance here.

Play #2:
Milliner INT 1

The first play I looked into showed both keen intelligence and natural ability from the rookie corner.  It was all of the same for his first career interception. On this particular play, the Jets have run a Cover 3 coverage scheme in which Milliner, Ed Reed, and Antonio Cromartie drop back in zone, splitting the defensive backfields into thirds. When Browns’ tight end Marqueis Gray (route closest to  the top of the screen) takes his cut that shows he’s running a corner post, Ed Reed should be breaking hard to cover the middle of the field to defend Greg Little since he now has no deep responsibilities in his third. Unsurprisingly, Reed is late and slow to start getting there, so Milliner makes up for it with a pretty bold move. Kyle Wilson is covering the running back on a wheel route into his third, but Milliner knows that Little will be wide open in the middle, so he starts to make a break for him before Jason Campbell sees him open.

Milliner INT 2

Milliner just flat out chops this play up for the Browns. By himself. This would have been an easy dump-off and likely a missed tackle from Ed Reed (who was still late to cover Little after seeing the play develop right in front of him). Milliner broke on the ball before it was thrown, and it wasn’t even a responsibility of his. In fact, Milliner made the guess that Little would be where Campbell made the throw. As a result, Dee closed on the ball in a flash and made the interception. Smart work, youngster.

Everybody who watched Milliner at Alabama quickly learned that his hands were disappointing. He could never really make the tough interceptions, and even dropped some easy ones. However, part of the narrative faced against him is that he supposedly has weak ball skills. This isn’t true. It’s never been true, even when before his learning curve. His timing with attacking the ball is almost always on point. Actually, one of the only times I’ve seen him strike untimely was during his game versus the Dolphins. It went uncalled, but he was clearly early as shown below.

Screenshot 2013-12-29 at 9.27.34 PM

Still, Milliner’s confidence is evident with how well he has been attacking at the point of the catch. It’s also impressive that even in his rookie season, he has discipline. During this stretch of lock-down play from him, we’ve seen him turn down chances at possibly undercutting the receiver for an interception to make sure he can deflect the ball from the receiver instead. And his hands?  Well, there’s always this interception…

Screenshot 2013-12-29 at 9.41.45 PM

It’s absurd how great of a lasting impression a rookie year can leave us with after such a bumpy start and middle. However, that’s exactly what Dee Milliner has going for him with the 2013 regular season under wraps. He’s far from a shutdown corner, though he’s looked like one as of late.He still needs to sharpen his game with receivers at the top of their routes, and his body control and footwork could improve in that same area.

Remember when Dee Milliner was a bust? I don’t either. The rising star will remember how many fans and doubters stamped him as one in order to etch their initials into his narrative for a long time. The new tale to tell regarding Milliner is how smart of a player he is becoming, and how eventually he will be a star based on what he’s shown lately.