As ugly as last week's loss was, the New York Jets have a lot of reason to be excited about the future.
Dee Milliner is not one of those reasons.
The Jets' top draft pick from this past year, Milliner was considered by many to be the best cornerback available in the draft. When he fell to the Jets' first selection at No. 9, the Jets pounced at the opportunity at immediately filling a gaping hole at cornerback created by the Darrelle Revis trade.
So far, the Jets vision of stopping the bleeding of talent in the secondary has not materialized.
Milliner was off to a slow start the day he was drafted. After missing the entire offseason program recovering from shoulder surgery, Milliner was already a step behind in his development.
For Alabama cornerbacks that are not taught basic NFL techniques (such as backpedaling), losing precious practice to work out the kinks in their game is devastating. Clearly, Milliner is struggling from not being sound enough in his technique to trust it play-in and play-out.
Milliner was already benched once this season in Week 2 against the New England Patriots. It took him six more weeks to get healthy enough (he injured his hamstring the following week) and play well enough in practice to "earn" another chance to start—an opportunity he would quickly squander.
Before he was benched in the middle of the second quarter, Milliner had given up four passes on five targets. Andy Dalton had a perfect quarterback rating (158.3) when throwing in his direction.
While Milliner may be behind in his development from the lack of a full offseason, how is such a talented player getting burned on such a consistent basis? Here is Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen's take on Milliner's struggles during the Week 8 loss:
Dee Milliner is struggling. Technique is a major issue for the rookie in coverage.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) October 27, 2013
In short, Milliner is trying to play like a physical corner—without actually being physical. Don't worry, it will all make sense in a bit.
Rex Ryan's preferred style of coverage is in-your-face, press-man coverage—something that takes precise technique and a willingness to gamble on one's physicality at the line of scrimmage in order to execute properly.
At least at the start of the game, Milliner appeared determined to play the physical style that his coaches want him to. Milliner lines up right in the receiver's face in what appeared to be bump-and-run coverage.
That was, at least, until the ball was snapped.
Instead of disrupting the route by putting his hands on the receiver, Milliner gives him a free release off the line. As a result, the receiver is able to run the "go" route down the sideline uninterrupted.
Now, because he did not disrupt the route, Milliner is forced to play catch-up with the speedy receiver. He is unable to control him on the sideline and look for the ball as it arrives.
Milliner does not allow a ton of separation, but the fact that he is not ready for the ball to arrive and the receiver is not pinned to the sideline allows for the long completion. The receiver has room on the sideline to adjust to the ball if needed.
This instance of not being physical was hardly an isolated incident. Just a few plays later, Milliner is caught, once again, not being physical at the line of scrimmage, even if his stance suggested otherwise.
Once again, Milliner is lined up in press-man coverage, but he does not lay a hand on the receiver when the ball is snapped. As a result, the receiver is able to run a skinny post into the seam.
If Milliner was physical, he could have redirected the route to the sideline, where the receiver would have had less room to work with.
Unlike the previous play, Milliner will get some help in coverage by a linebacker dropping into coverage. The linebacker's presence will force Andy Dalton to squeeze the ball into a tight window—which he does.
Again, because Milliner did not get a hand on the receiver, he gains enough separation to allow Dalton to make a terrific throw over the linebacker and in front of Milliner's coverage. Milliner was playing far too much to the outside to be able to make a play on a ball thrown inside.
As good as Dalton's throw was, Milliner was beat far too easily and was unable to recover quickly enough. He clearly does not trust his technique (or he would have played press-man) or where his receiver is going (or he would have not played so far to the outside).
Outside of being more physical, this reception could be attributed to a lack of film study—knowing a receiver's route based on the formation and situation is what separates the good from the great cornerbacks. While it is unfair to assume Milliner is not putting in the time in the film room, the fact that he is constantly guessing where he should be certainly makes it a possibility.
Eventually, Milliner learns his lessons and realizes that if he is not going to be physical at the line of scrimmage, he might as well play "off" coverage to prevent a receiver from getting behind him.
Amazingly enough, the results are even worse when Milliner tries this technique against Cincinnati Bengals receiver Marvin Jones right before he was benched.
Milliner giving Jones a cushion will make him susceptible to allowing a completion, but it won't be for big yardage—assuming he plays it right and makes the tackle because the play is developing in front of him.
Somehow, Milliner manages to play a six-yard curl route—a route that plays right into the hands of Milliner's off-coverage in which he does not even have to make a cut—into a 40-yard play.
Jones runs his curl route, but Milliner still backs up to separate himself far too much from the receiver. Again, this is evidence of Milliner not being confident in where the receiver is going to go and his own ability to run with him.
As a result, he is not in position to make the tackle that would limit the damage of the short reception. Milliner has to get so much speed to get to his receiver in time that he misses the tackle completely.
Jones makes an easy pivot to the outside, giving him plenty of room to run. A few more broken tackles put the Bengals offense inside the 10-yard-line. Milliner was benched after this play.
This play was about as bad as it gets for an NFL cornerback. Milliner already conceded the short completion when he played so far at the line of scrimmage, but he wasn't even able to play a simple six-yard curl route well enough to avoid a 40-yard play.
When he was at Alabama, Milliner was never afraid to challenge a receiver at the line of scrimmage. Why has he been so timid all of a sudden?
Milliner's NFL struggles can be summarized in one word: confidence. Milliner is not confident in where his receivers are going and how to properly use his new techniques to stop them.
The rookies' head is spinning; even when he gives up a completion that most corners would not get to, he looks confused.
Milliner unaware of the back shoulder throw in the 1st TD. Really tough to defend that pass but he looked lost. pic.twitter.com/gEaTC6219H— Gonzalo Estradé (@PFF_Gonzalo) October 29, 2013
Milliner is being told to play a brand new style of play, but he simply has not had the time to turn his new lessons into muscle memory. As a result, the product he is putting on game day is an ugly mix of old habits and poorly executed new techniques.
It is no wonder that Milliner has struggled so greatly.
As bad as he has been through the first two months of the season, it is entirely too premature to write off the Alabama product. After all, Milliner was the Jets' top draft pick for a reason; he has the size, speed, and when he has the confidence, the ability to out-muscle the toughest receivers in the game.
Cornerbacks, especially Alabama products (see Kirkpatrick, Dre) tend to take a bit longer to adjust to the NFL game. While the Jets have a right to be concerned with how Milliner is playing and he does not deserve to be a starter at this time, there is still plenty of time for him to develop the skills needed to be a quality starter in the NFL.
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