With twelve minutes and twenty-four seconds left in the fourth quarter of a tie game against the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson harnessed a hand-off from his quarterback, Christian Ponder, and took two quick strides forward, finding himself just inside of his left tackle, Matt Kalil. Peterson, widely considered to be one of the best—if not the best—running backs in the league since being drafted in 2007, immediately darted to his left where he would run past several would-be tacklers for what would amount to a five-yard gain. One of those defenders, a guy tasked with doing everything within his power to meet Peterson behind the line of scrimmage, yearning to beat him to the quarterback immediately following the snap, was Barkevious Mingo.
Mingo, a rookie at the time, started on the outside of the Browns’ defensive scheme, but was quickly met by Vikings tight end John Carlson. Carlson stood Mingo up, engaged him directly into his chest and contained him just long enough for Mingo to be forced to stare at the No. 28 on the back of Peterson’s jersey as the ball-carrier scampered away, later brought down by a handful of Mingo’s teammates. By comparison, it was a play that happens in every NFL contest. It netted just five yards in a game that the Browns would eventually go on to win. But it’s one that sticks out in Mingo’s mind, the result of post-mortem film study and the mental reminder that his teammates were forced to pick up the slack he left behind.
“It sticks out,” Mingo tells WFNY of attempting to bring down Peterson in what was just his second game as a professional. “You always remember the bad ones. It was my fault.”
Mingo, the sixth-overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, is a focal point of those watching Training Camp this summer, hoping to see more flashes of the guy who had three quarterback sacks in his first three games and a lot less of the one who managed to record just two over his final twelve. He will attempt to do so with what will be his third defensive coordinator in three years between Louisiana State University and the Browns who are now under the watch of the 35-year-old Jim O’Neil. Mingo will be the first to stand up for the SEC and the quality of talent that litters the high-end collegiate football conference, but he’ll also quickly admit that the transition to the NFL was one that can take the most athletic of defenders and make them appear lost once assignments and technique enter into the fray.
At 6-foot-4-inches with a frame that could best be described as lean, Mingo can explode off of the line with speed that rivals many defensive backs. The hand- and foot-work of NFL-caliber offensive linemen, however, have forced Mingo into being more than a quarterback assassin. As the outside linebacker in a hybrid NFL defense, Mingo is not only forced to drop in to pass coverage, but also contain the edge in the event an opposing offense attempts to stretch the field toward the sideline—the latter being an area that was not just limited to the play on September 22 against the Vikings.
One week later, as the Browns were facing the Cincinnati Bengals, rookie running back Gio Bernard took a second-quarter run for six yards to Mingo’s side, the linebacker being taken completely out of the play by a pulling right guard. Two weeks later, in the third quarter of a game against the run-first Buffalo Bills, the lightning quick CJ Spiller ran a counter run around the right side of quarterback EJ Manuel, only to plant his right foot and cut left toward the space that should have been occupied by Mingo. The result was a 54-yard touchdown run and a tie game. Mingo was once again corralled by a tight end. Against the Detroit Lions, his team up 17-7 with a little over 11 minutes left in the third quarter, running back Reggie Bush played copycat to Spiller, taking an off-tackle run for 39 yards down the left sideline, ultimately tackled by defensive back Chris Owens. Bush would later score on a screen pass and the Browns would not score again, ultimately losing 31-17.
The list could go on, but the patterns was well in place. Mingo stopped getting to the quarterback with ball-in-hand, but he never established himself as a force in any other facet of the game. ProFootballFocus listed Mingo as the fourth-worst outside linebacker against the run in 2013, his two worst games of the season coming against the Bengals.
In 2014, now weighing the most he’s every been—he’s in the “high 230s” per Browns head coach Mike Pettine, despite being listed at 240 a season ago—Mingo is looking to chalk his rookie season up as a learning experience. He’s a year older, a year wiser and will still be looked upon to help the Browns, despite having the highly discussed Johnny Manziel in a red practice jersey, win games through their defense.
“I have a lot of internal goals,” Mingo said. “Not necessarily stats, but just helping my team win.”
Many players who get caught in the whirlwind of transitioning regimes could have the added pressure of impressing a cabal of men who had nothing to do with his very selection. Mingo, however, has a fan in O’Neil who wanted the Buffalo Bills to trade up to snag the LSU product before the Browns could do so. But just as O’Neil is a fan of Mingo’s skill set, he is laying down a gauntlet of challenges for the second-year linebacker to accomplish—all of them related to the weaknesses he displayed during his first year in the league. During minicamp, Mingo dropped a series of what should have been easy interceptions, leading to some extended work and the thumping sound of a JUGS machine. On Saturday, in one-on-one drills against tight ends, Mingo stayed with his opposition step-for-step down the field, only to contort his body mid-air, extend his bear-sized hands and haul in a pass from quarterback Connor Shaw. The two bodies crashed in to the ground, but Mingo, with the ball firmly tucked under his arm, sprinted toward his line-backing teammates who leapt into the air in celebration.
“You could tell that hopefully the switch has been flipped,” said head coach Mike Pettine of Mingo. “His world was completely different than what we’re asking from him now. He’s out in space, much more involved in coverage. We’ll still take advantage of his pass rush ability. As far as a true radical position change, it’s right up there with him.”
Just like Mingo recounts the missed assignment against the Vikings, he can recall the exact play where he sacked Manziel when the two locked horns in college. Manziel was out of the pocket, as he so often was, leading to athleticism and speed being the deciding factor. While some of his Browns teammates are still on the sidelines, having yet to pass their conditioning drills, Mingo spent his offseason in the Louisiana heat, running 50-yard sprints with ease—Browns coaches say he could have passed the defensive back’s edition of said drills. “I surprised myself,” Mingo said with a smile.
There’s little denying that Mingo has done the work. Though 80 degrees and humid in Berea, he insists it’s nothing compared to the sweltering heat of the bayou. Spend five minutes speaking with him and the amount he has learned over the last 12 months is very apparent, recalling plays in his head like a towering, human film room. He may not catch every potential ball thrown his way, but he’s a linebacker—and not a tight end—for good reason. Mingo will head into the 2014 season still splitting time with veterans Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard, looking to make his mark when called upon. And if he has it his way, whether it’s rushing the passer, covering a potential receiving threat, or containing the edge from a big play in the run game, it’ll be the opposing play-callers—and those pesky running backs—who are left surprised.
(Photos: Scott Sargent/WFNY)