Having already been benched three times this season, it appeared as if Dee Milliner was flirting with the "bust" label. However, after a strong performance last Sunday against the Raiders, the Jets finally have reason to believe that their most prized draft pick could pan out after all.
Prior to this week, Milliner has been struggling mightily to maintain proper technique in the heat of the moment. Having not been taught the proper mechanics from his time at Alabama, Milliner has struggled to perform even the most basic coverage techniques without reverting to his old habits. The fact that he got a late start in training camp rehabbing from shoulder surgery only made matters worse.
After a rough start to his rookie season, including a flare-up of his hamstring injury, Milliner was finally able to play well in a game. In fact, he was not responsible for a single reception all afternoon, according to Pro Football Focus.
|Completion %||Yards||Passes Defended||QB Rating||PFF Rank|
|Rest of Season (including Week 14)||50||578||7||108.6||102|
Pro Football Focus
These numbers are looking much better, but do they tell the whole story?
Dee Milliner earned his first green grade in coverage (+1.8) after allowing zero catches in 3 targets with 1 pass defended. #Jets— Gonzalo Estradé (@PFF_Gonzalo) December 9, 2013
While Milliner was not nearly as bad as he has been in recent weeks, he did show improvement in some areas. Nonetheless, he did not magically morph into the next Darrelle Revis in a week. He still has technique issues that need to be ironed out in order to post the same quality results on a week-to-week basis.
The Good: Ball Awareness
One of the biggest problems Dee Milliner has dealt with is his inability to find and make plays on the ball in the air. Constantly out of position, Milliner drew a lot of pass interference penalties because he had to guess where the ball was with his back turned—as opposed to facing the ball and competing with the receiver for it.
Here, Milliner shows a great "feel" on this go route. He makes a fluid transition out of his break to keep pace with the receiver.
With good size and length for his position, Milliner is also in position to make a play on the ball if the quarterback dares to challenge him in a one-on-one situation—a trait that cannot be taught.
The most impressive thing Milliner does on this play is that he keeps his eye on the quarterback without losing track of his receiver. This is evidence of Milliner gaining confidence not only with regard to where he is on the field, but also his ability to anticipate routes—a result of good film study.
A few weeks ago, Milliner may have been chasing down his receiver desperately trying not to draw a costly interference penalty. Now, Milliner is much more in control of the situation. He is learning from his experience in the NFL.
The Good: Fluidity
One of the main reasons why Milliner was able to post a clean sheet last week was that he was able to use the natural ability that made him the top cornerback in the draft.
More than anything else, Milliner's fluidity in the transition out of his backpedal stood out.
On this play, Milliner is in off-man coverage (much to the chagrin of head coach Rex Ryan). This could leave a cornerback vulnerable to allowing a big play.
He is able to compensate for his lack of physicality by making a perfectly timed transition out of his backpedal to maintain positioning with the receiver. Notice how his hips open up enough for him to make a 90-degree turn, not wasting movement on any extra steps.
Coaches can teach a player how to play in press-man coverage, but they cannot teach a player to move with such athleticism.
The Bad: Inconsistent Technique
As much improvement as Milliner has shown in several areas of his game, he still does not use the proper technique on a play-by-play basis as the top cornerbacks in the game do.
Where Milliner struggles most is changing direction at the top of routes going across the field.
On this play, the receiver is set to run a deep-in route. Milliner plays this rather well—although he does not start out in press-man, once again—until he is forced to make a decision at the top of the route as to which direction he needs to go.
The receiver is able to sell the fly route, which puts Milliner completely out of position. Milliner now has to make an awkward turn to get anywhere near the receiver.
Milliner needed to be much more patient at the top of the route instead of assuming that the receiver was going to run a go route. Had he been more patient, Milliner would have been in better position when the receiver made his cut inward. The usually explosive Milliner likely would have been in great position to make a play on the ball if need be.
With experience he will be able to find the delicate balance between patience and reaction time.
Milliner was able to get away with awful technique on this play because the ball fell incomplete to another receiver. However, had this play come in a more important situation against a more competent quarterback than Matt McGloin, the storyline for Milliner's game would have been much different.
Again, the good news is that these issues are technical errors. There's plenty of opportunity to correct these mistakes, but it will take time before Milliner completely erases these lapses from his game.
There is no doubt that Milliner is improving, but he did not put up a performance that was worthy of a shutout. Playing against an offensively-challenged Raiders team, Milliner benefitted from poor quarterback play and even worse play from his counterpart, Antonio Cromartie—who the Raiders targeted over and over.
Milliner still has a long way to go, and it is very possible that his performance could regress next week against a more dangerous quarterback in Cam Newton.
The real test for Milliner will be next season, when he has a full offseason to get healthy and turn these new techniques into muscle memory.
The Jets have reason to be a bit concerned with Milliner's production so far, but the signs are pointing up for the young cornerback. However, if he continues to play poorly in 2014, the Jets have good reason to be alarmed with his lack of development.
Advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).