Entering the Most Important Season of his Career, can Cleveland Browns' OLB Barkevious Mingo Prove He's an NFL Starter?

Cleveland Browns OLB Barkevious "Keke" Mingo enters a pivotal season hoping an offseason regimen that added 20-pounds to his frame and the return of former defensive coordinator Ray Horton will lead to the breakout season fans have been waiting for since 2013.

There is no denying that Mingo has failed to live up to expectations after being selected as the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. After making the switch from college defensive end to hybrid rusher the fourth-year pro started his rookie season with a bang, recording three sacks and ten tackles during his first three games. The former LSU Tiger failed to capitalize on his hot start, finishing the 2013 season with a total of five sacks and 42 tackles.

Many of the concerns around Mingo’s game coming out of college manifested itself on the field. According to PFF Mingo graded out at -9.8 as a rush linebacker (Elephant) in Horton’s 3-4 hybrid defense. Mingo did flash at times, but all too often he was a non-factor, consistently allowing tackles to run him past the quarterback as he attempted to bend the edge.

Mingo graded out “better” against both the run (-2.4) and pass (-3.7), although over-aggressive play and lack of size/strength hampered him in both categories throughout the season. Despite negative grades and injury Mingo showed flashes in all three phases of the game, leading to expectations of a breakout second season. Unfortunately due to two years in the Pettine -system where he was heavily utilized in a coverage role, serious shoulder issues in 2014, and lack of development in pass-rush moves, the high hopes for Mingo failed to materialize. After his five-sack rookie season Mingo has recorded a grand total of two sacks since, including no sacks in 2015.

As Mingo enters the fourth year of his rookie contract, his day of reckoning has arrived. With the Browns unlikely to pick up the fifth-year option for the 2017 season that would pay him just under $12 million, it is time to prove once and for all if that he is a true outside linebacker and not a talented athlete playing football. His NLF career could depend on it.

Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Mingo’s 2013 season was his most successful from a statistical and game-tape perspective. Let’s take a look at the film to breakdown what went right and what went wrong.

While Mingo had issues defending the run game (as evidenced by his negative grade), he held up the point of attack (POA) very well at times throughout his rookie season. In the Browns’ week three 31-27 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, Mingo faced a top-three tailback in running back Adrian Peterson. Early in the second quarter on a first and ten at Minnesota’s 44-yard line, Mingo demonstrated his ability to execute the ‘force’ concept from the SAM spot.

Minnesota is running Outside Zone from 12 (one tailback and two tight ends) personnel, with an inline tight end (on the line of scrimmage) and a Wing. Against this specific alignment Mingo’s run fit (gap responsibility) is to play ‘force’, or push the ball back inside to the pursuit.

A common term for a run fit in which a linebacker plays the force man is known as ‘Bronco’ force. As we can see from the playbook, the force man must identify the run direction and type of block using his run/pass key, attack the blocker with violence, and push the ball back inside by not allowing the ball carrier to cross his outside shoulder. On a reach block (a common zone block in which the offensive player attempts to ‘reach’ the defender’s outside shoulder and move him laterally down the line of scrimmage) the defender will keep his outside shoulder clean by establishing  a strong base from the ground-up, attacking the blocker with active hands, and maintaining good pad level.

On ‘flow to’ (tailback is coming towards the defender) the force defender wants to squeeze the inside gap to prevent the runner from hitting a wide-open hole, pushing the ball back inside to pursuit players. The idea is to surround the ball carrier from both sides so he has nowhere to go but down.

Let’s see how Mingo does playing Bronco force.

Notice how quickly Mingo reads his run direction key and attacks the Wing tight end. The tailback’s aiming point is he E-gap here, so the blocker must reach Mingo’s outside shoulder and wall him off from the ball so it can hit outside.

Although the tight end initially gets movement on Mingo, notice how the OLB spins his helmet and hips into his gap responsibility while pulling with his inside hand to spin the blocker. Mingo puts himself in great position to make a play on Peterson if he tries to push the ball outside, forcing the tailback to cut back in towards the scrapping linebackers. Surrounding by would-be tacklers Peterson pushes the ball upfield to take what he can, in this case a negative gain.

Great example of team defense and run leverage.

While Mingo had his positive moments in the run game, all too often he alternated between periods of over-aggressiveness over timidity at the line of scrimmage.

Later in the game we see the Vikings run a weak side Iso at Mingo out of 21 personnel. The offensive line will base block with a right guard/ right tackle double team on the 4i (aligned on inside eye of tackle) defensive end. After securing the double team, one of the two will climb to the MIKE, leaving the fullback to kick out Mingo. The tailback is aiming for the C-gap here, so the double team and kick out must be executed for the play to hit.

Mingo is in the Elephant position (weak side rusher) and again has Bronco force, meaning he must push the ball back inside when he reads his run key and the left tackle’s block-type.


When the weak side force defender reads the inside block from the right tackle, he will follow the ‘block down, step down’ rule in which he squeezes down the line of scrimmage to replace the blocker’s hip. Because he has force Mingo must attack the kick-out block from the fullback with his inside shoulder, looking to violently collision the outside shoulder of the fullback to spill the ball back inside. Remember, the force players main responsibility is to prevent the ball from getting outside. He does not need to make the tackle to execute his responsibility correctly.

We see Mingo began to execute his block down, step down, but his hesitation gets him killed. It appears that Mingo is slow to recognize the kick-out coming his way from the fullback, although once he recognizes the block he makes no effort to come downhill and create a pile. He has no chance taking on a fullback with a four yard running start flat-footed, and we see the results of ‘receiving’ a block as Mingo is slobber knocked.

Mingo should attack downhill with an athletic stance, low pad level, and VIOLENT intentions, using his inside shoulder to attack the blocker’s outside shoulder. If executed correctly the ensuing pile will squeeze the runner’s aiming point (the C-gap), forcing him right into the scrapping linebackers.  Focus on the MIKE (#52) and nose tackle (#98) as they flow towards the ball. If Peterson is forced to hit the C-gap he will likely be stopped for a minimal gain as the defense has two free hitters in the hole. Because Mingo fails to ‘set the edge’ or ‘contain’ due to poor awareness and tentative play, the ball is bounced outside for a first down.

In the Browns’ week five 37-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills we see the opposite end of the spectrum as Mingo loses the edge due to over-pursuit.

The Bills show 12 personnel with two inline tight ends aligned to the field (wide-side). The offense breaks run direction tendency (teams run to the strong side more often than to the weak side) by running Inside Zone weak away from Mingo.

On ‘flow to’ Mingo would play his regular Bronco force rule, but on ‘flow away’ (the tailback runs away from the defender) he becomes a contain player, following the BCR rule (although in Horton’s defense the term is “pursue, reverse, boot”) to prevent the ball from cutting back across the field away from the force and spill defenders.

As Mingo reads his run direction key (through the tight end to the tailback) and recognizes ‘flow away’ he will squeeze down the line, taking care not to cross the line of scrimmage. He MUST squeeze under control as he is responsible bottling up any cutback from the tailback.

Notice that once the tight end gets his hands on Mingo he is unable to shed using a technique like the two-hand punch or rip, although he continues to aggressively pursue down the line of scrimmage. Because Mingo has squeezed down the line too far and cannot disengage from the block, he loses back side contain as soon the ball carrier cuts to hit the back side of the play. The strong safety has correctly played his fill responsibility in the D-gap, leaving the ball carrier with no place to go if Mingo holds his edge. Like the previous play, if Mingo plays force correctly this play is stopped for a minimal gain, rather than a 54-yard touchdown.

Our final look at Mingo as a run defender focuses on a spill technique (force the ball outside) utilized by many NFL defenses known as ‘wrong-arming’. When playing Bronco force the outside linebacker will convert from a force player to a spill player if he reads down blocks (blocks towards the center) from the offensive line on his side of the center. The down blocks are usually an indication that the offense is running a gap-blocked concept (power and counter for example), keying the linebacker to pullers coming his way. In spite of his slight frame (by linebacker standards) Mingo excelled at wrong-arming pullers. Pay close attention to the bolded text in the playbook image below:

As we can see from the playbook multiple down blocks convert the edge defender to a spill defender, drastically changing his run fit. Instead of boxing the ball inside as a force player the linebacker must force the ball outside and pursue. Generally a linebacker or safety becomes the new force defender. The read happens at lightning speed, so the defender must read his key quickly and accurately.

It is helpful to think of wrong-arm technique as the opposite of the kick-out technique we discussed in a previous play. The spill player will follow his ‘block down, step down’ rule and then attack the puller’s inside shoulder with his outside shoulder. The ideal wrong-arm will knock the pulling guard back into the tackle/tailback, creating a train wreck in the backfield.

Our first example comes from the Browns’ first contest with the Baltimore Ravens. The offense is running a Counter OF to the weak side, pulling the back side guard and tight end. They will attempt to kick out Mingo with the guard and use the tight end to wrap through the C-gap, picking up the first threat to cross his face from the inside.

Mingo will key through the tight end to the tailback’s flow for his run/pass and play direction key. When he reads the down blocks, he must follow his hands inside with bad intentions looking to create maximum destruction. The linebacker or safety will fit off the block, although Mingo should try to spill the ball parallel to the line of scrimmage

Mingo does a great job reading his key, following his hands inside, and replacing the right tackle’s hip. As Mingo squeezes inside, notice the MIKE (#52) scrape outside to replace him as the force defender. Both players must work in conjunction for the technique to work correctly.

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Because Mingo is at such a weight disadvantage he elects to submarine the lead puller, creating a pile in the C-gap the tailback wants to hit. The MIKE holds the edge, preventing running back Ray Rice from bouncing the ball outside and allowing the pursuit to make the tackle for a short loss. Another great example of team tackling.

In our next example we see Mingo misread his key, leading to a blown assignment and solid first down gain for the offense.

Mingo is lined up in the SAM position just outside the tight end to the field. Because the Bronco force call is on, he will push all plays his way back inside unless he reads down blocks from tight end, tackle, and guard. If he reads front side down blocks, Mingo will convert to a spill player and wrong-arm the first puller that shows.

This play illustrates the importance of accurate key reads, as Mingo must read through the tight end to the tailback. This read will keep the left tackle and left guard in his peripheral vision, an important point because their actions will dictate his run fit once the tight end down blocks. At the snap Mingo recognizes the down block, but his read is not complete. He must recognize the blocks from the left guard and left tackle. Different blocks call for a different role and technique:

  1. If either or both linemen block down Mingo will become a spill player, wrong-arming the ball outside to the new force player.
  2. If either or both linemen pull Mingo remains the force player, meaning he cannot let the pullers get outside his outside shoulder.

The Brown’s front seven is in a base Horton front, a 3-4 by name but a 4-3 under by alignment. Notice the 4-technique (#95) over the tight end. While the rest of the front seven is playing a 1-gap technique, the defensive end is playing 2-gaps. Horton often mixes one and two-gap players to create a ‘hybrid’ front that leave the offensive line guessing as to which players are playing a single gap, two gaps, or aligning to slant and twist.

Locate Mingo on the far right of the image outside the tight end.

Mingo reads the down block correctly and executes his ‘block down, step down rule’, but fails to read the front side pullers. Go back to Mingo’s run-fit rules. When a puller comes from his side he remains the force player. However, Mingo continues squeezing inside because he does not read the left tackle and left guard, likely preparing to wrong-arm back-side pullers that are not coming. Because Mingo squeezes too far inside, he allows himself to be outflanked by the left tackle, left guard, and tailback. He has lost force. It takes a solid tackle by the cornerback (#22) to limit the gain to a manageable five yards.

Mingo’s rookie struggles continued in the passing game as he often made incorrect reads in zone coverage and was victimized by lack of functional strength, although like the run game he did show flashes of solid NFL-linebacker play.

Returning the Browns’ 37-24 over the Buffalo Bills, we see Mingo play outstanding curl/flat coverage behind a designed cornerback blitz.

The pressure will come from the boundary (short-side of the field) to reduce the distance the cornerback must cover on his way to the quarterback. The edge rusher, defensive lineman, and boundary linebacker will rush to create a hole between the right tackle and right guard for the left corner

The defense will play Cover 6, or quarter-quarter-half behind the blitz.

The defense will play Cover 2 to the boundary, with the defensive back responsible for the flat with deep half-field safety help overtop. To the wide-side the defense will play Cover 4, with the right cornerback and field safety playing a deep quarter zone.  The MIKE and SAM (Mingo) will play the underneath routes.

Mingo’s technique is to open his hips 45 degrees to the sideline and gain width and depth while alternating his eyes between the quarterback and receivers. He should collision the #2 receiver as they cross paths to slow down the route development. Most curl/flat players are taught not to break on routes to the flat, but to break on the ball and rally down for the tackle.


Mingo does a nice job hiding his intentions by showing blitz before executing his curl/flat drop. Notice his helmet as he moves his eyes from quarterback to receiver. I would like to see him wall off the receiver just below the 30-yard line to help out his deep safety, but this is a solid drop for a rookie.

The Bills attempt to hit the X receiver on a shallow from the boundary, but due to a combination of a likely “In” call from the hook defender and Mingo practicing good eye discipline he is able to make an outstanding break on the ball and deliver a solid hit.

Later in the season we see chessmaster Bill Belichick scheme Mingo into covering his fullback on a wheel route, betting that the linebacker cannot turn the corner and run with the offensive player.

The offense starts the play in an I-formation with Gronk to the closed side of the alignment (right-side of the formation). True to his blitzing nature Horton sends pressure with the MIKE using a Green Dog technique (if the tailback stays in the backfield to block, blitz; if the tailback runs a pass route, play the called coverage).

The defense has an inside-out bracket on Gronk underneath, leaving Mingo to take whatever threat shows to his side in man coverage. Belichick likely knows his All-Pro tight end will be bracketed out of this alignment, giving him the freedom to run a variety of routes out of the backfield with his fullback.

Mingo does a great job recognizing the shift, adjusting his coverage, and executing a solid collision with the receiver to disrupt the route’s timing. Unfortunately Mingo’s lack of bulk/strength prevents him from turning the corner quickly enough to stay on the fullback’s inside hip. This slight separation is all Tom Brady needs to drop a beautifully-thrown ball in the basket.

Mingo’s coverage identification and technique are not the issue here; he simply needs to bulk up and increase his strength to bring more pop at the point of attack.

As mentioned in the introduction, Mingo graded out at -9.8 as a rush linebacker although he did record five sacks and a number of quarterback hurries. Mingo likely graded out so poorly due to his propensity to disappear for long stretches and sometimes entire games. After starting his rookie season with five sacks in three straight games, he recorded just two over the final 12.

While Mingo showed decent edge-bending speed, he relied on the outside speed rush too often and rarely countered with inside moves like out-ins, dip/rips and swims. His lack of bulk/strength prevented (and continues to prevent) any type of bull rush, effectively making the outside linebacker a one trick pony.

Mingo’s first career sack came in his very first game as a pro, a 14-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Playing the Elephant position, or weak side end, Mingo has pass rushing responsibility after he reads his run/pass key (likely hi-hat, lo-hat).

As an outside rusher Mingo will align in a pseudo runner’s stance with his inside foot up and eyes on his key. At the snap Mingo reads the hi-hat key from the left tackle and immediately explodes of the line of scrimmage. He needs to push upfield HARD to force movement from the offensive lineman’s feet and body.

Once the offensive lineman has started vertical movement, Mingo will plant and push of his outside foot to point his hips towards the quarterback. As contact approaches he should dip his inside shoulder and rip the inside arm through the lineman’s outside arm.

The left tackle’s vertical set is poor due to weak pass-set steps. Mingo pushes off his inside foot, making a hard inside cut while dipping his shoulder and increasing his bend at the 40-yard line. Because the left tackle’s technique is so poor, Mingo’s execution has little to do with the eventual sack. He simply runs by the blocker.

While Mingo did get to the quarterback during his rookie season, the lack of a second credible pass-rush move allowed quality tackles to eliminate Mingo as a consistent threat to the quarterback.

Aligned in a wide nine against New England’s empty formation, Mingo attempted to use an outside pass rush move known as an ‘in-out’.

The concept is simple. Fake inside, forcing the offensive lineman to overcommit before cutting hard off the inside foot to cross his face and continue around the corner. The hands and feet should work in conjunction, with the rusher ripping his inside arm through the outside arms of the blocker as he crosses his face.

Mingo’s lack of upper body strength clearly prevents him from turning the corner here. Watch him stumble as the tackle uses his superior strength via a two-handed punch to the chest plate. Mingo’s footwork is useless if he cannot use his hands to keep the blocker off his body.

While both Horton and Mingo have expressed excitement in being reunited, any positive feelings will be short-lived without a dramatic improvement in play. With the extreme unlikelihood that the Browns’ guarantee the fifth year of his contract by May 2, Mingo will no longer be with the team next season unless he vastly improves his pass-rush skills and run/pass defense. Horton believes he is the coach to develop and maximize Mingo’s strengths. Expect to find out very quickly if he’s right or wrong.

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