There's no escaping the fact that the Jets drafted cornerback Dee Milliner in the first round last spring as the replacement for the traded Darrelle Revis. But a baptism by fire that included three benchings earlier this season convinced many that the rookie from Alabama was destined to be a bust.
Coach Rex Ryan defended Milliner until he was blue in the face, though, and kept running him back out to start. Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium, the Jets chose to pit Milliner against Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon, who leads the NFL in receiving yards, and Milliner finally rewarded Ryan's faith.
Gordon got his yards -- 97 on six catches -- but he was targeted 16 times, including back-to-back passes in the end zone that Milliner broke up in the second quarter. Milliner had a team-high nine tackles and five passes defensed, including his first NFL interception, to lead a tremendous defensive effort in the Jets' 24-13 victory over Cleveland.
It was the breakout game Milliner needed to earn his starting job. "It's probably the best game I had all season," he said.
Milliner gave up a couple of deep sideline gains, but he didn't miss tackles. More importantly, he knocked down a first-quarter bomb to Gordon in the end zone. In the second quarter, Milliner broke up a fade to Gordon in the left corner of the end zone and then a fourth-down pass intended for Gordon near the left pylon.
"I knew they were going to take a shot with him because he's one of the go-to receivers in the red zone," Milliner said. "He's a bigger guy, so we knew they'd try a fade or a back-shoulder [throw]. Coach called a good coverage which put me underneath on the first one and over the top on the second one. We knew what was coming and tried to play the ball."
Milliner credited video study and scout-team preparation for helping him withstand the Browns' plan to attack him. "We knew that was going to happen," he said. "I was just trying to keep my composure. I knew there was going to be an opportunity to get a lot of plays thrown at me. I was ready."
In the third quarter, Milliner was in zone coverage when Browns quarterback Jason Campbell threw a pass for wideout Greg Little going up the left seam. "We were in a zone, and I broke on it with the receiver," Milliner said. "It's my first [interception] in the NFL. I feel great to finally get my hands on the ball and keep it this time."
Ryan felt great, too. Dripping sarcasm, he said of Milliner's play, "I thought he was horrible. That's what was reported, right? It's funny. I said at the end of the year, we'll see if this guy wasn't the best corner in the draft."