By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
Bingo, it’s Mingo: What if Barkevious Mingo hits big in 2014?
Mike Pettine termed it another way.
“Hopefully, the switch has been flipped,” the Browns’ coach said last week. “All signs are pointing that way. I’m very pleased.”
And that was before Mingo corralled a Brian Hoyer tipped pass in the team scrimmage Saturday in Akron and ran with the interception like … well, like he’d done it before.
Which he hadn’t, of course.
Mingo never had a pick in 40 games as a defensive end at Louisiana State University or 15 games as a sometimes-lost rookie with the Browns suffering the transition to outside linebacker.
Recalling the interception on Saturday, and his long-gaited romp that covered about 35 yards, Mingo had to laugh.
“I don’t know if you guys heard about the offseason camp where my hands were bricks,” Mingo said.
Oh, that. The day Mingo dropped five interceptions in OTAs? After practice, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil introduced Mingo to the JUGS machine, which spits out footballs like a bazooka, usually to receivers and tight ends. The thing about that practice day that the coaches noted: Mingo was in position for five interceptions.
“He’s out in space, much more involved in coverage,” Pettine said.
Let’s get creative: In the Browns’ conditioning test on the eve of training camp, players had to beat time thresholds based on their position group. Mingo finished first among linebackers and tight ends in each of the 20 sprints. Pettine said Mingo could have passed the test if grouped with defensive backs, which had a tougher time threshold.
The fact is, Mingo’s speed, and quickness, is off the charts for a linebacker. The previous Browns regime hoped to channel that speed into the pass rush. Mingo’s very first play as a professional was a sack of Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco. He turned in a sack in each of his first three games.
But offensive line coaches eventually neutralized Mingo’s signature speed move by instructing tackles to push him further and further to the outside. Mingo had no counter, and he scored only two sacks over his last 12 games as a rookie.
“It’s always tough for a rookie,” said Browns D-line coach Anthony Weaver. “The expectations are high. You’re still trying to feel out the speed of the game, adjusting to the athleticism of the opposing tackles. That’s something that he just had to go through and kind of get through those growing pains, but we expect a lot more out of him this year. We’ve seen his growth thus far this camp, and we know it’s just going to keep on going.
“We tell guys this: you need a fastball, a change-up and then a power move. Right now, he’s still trying to figure out what all those things are for him. Pass-rush moves are player-specific, so while you may throw a bunch of them onto them to learn, we’ve got to find out as coaches what works best for him and what he’s going to use come game time.”
Mingo’s weight is up a few pounds in his second season, to the high 230s. He’s not going to overpower offensive linemen almost 100 pounds heavier. But one way Pettine may unlock more pass rush from Mingo is by using him on the field together with Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger, who may be listed as the starting outside linebackers.
“We have some things where we have some guys walking around. It’s kind of an off-the-ball linebacker, a blitzer,” Pettine said. “When you have good players you don’t want to be limited by conventional scheme where, ‘We’re going to be cookie cutter. We have three pass rushers, but you’re only allowed to have two ends out there at a time.’
“We can get creative and they can rush against guards or rush two ends of off one side and get a mismatch on a back, force the protection to slide that way and maybe it frees up a guy on the other side. We’ll only be limited by our own creativity with how we use those guys.”
What if: For his part, Mingo has shown the natural growth expected of a No. 5 overall draft pick in his second NFL season. Aside from the improved awareness in pass drops – he also had an interception in a practice last week – Mingo has generally been in the right spots and hit the right gaps in the running game, which was a major weakness, rather alarmingly so, in his rookie season.
“Coming in here (in his second year), I know what to expect,” Mingo said. “I know what my job describes. I know how to play my techniques. I am comfortable with the offense, what they are going to throw at us. I am comfortable with the defense, knowing what I am required to do. It’s year two and we’ve just got to get after it.
“Last year, I learned a lot of lessons – stuff that you can’t draw on the board. I feel like I’m using that this year to help me be a better player.”
So what if Mingo hits big in his second season? What would that mean to the Browns’ defense?
Well, even with the addition of cornerback Justin Gilbert, the Browns’ No. 1 pick in 2014, Mingo has more athleticism than anybody on the unit. Harnessing Mingo into a productive player – able to rush, cover and defend the edge in the running game – OK, sometimes, at least – would bring a destructive element to Pettine’s defense that certainly was missing in Cleveland a year ago.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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