DraftBrowns.com Editor: Brendan Leister
When the Cleveland Browns selected LSU defensive end/outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo with the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, many were surprised. With the signings of Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves in free agency and 2011 second round pick Jabaal Sheard making the transition to outside linebacker, the Browns seemed to already have plenty of talent at the position. However, as many of us know, a team can never have enough players that can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The key is finding effective ways to maximize the talents of each individual player within the confines of a defensive scheme.
Earlier this offseason, I took an in-depth look inside Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s defense. In the piece, I discussed how Horton adjusts his defensive personnel to the opposing team’s offensive personnel in creative ways. Another thing that I looked at was how often Horton blitzed in comparison to the rest of the defensive coordinators around the NFL. It was apparent while studying Horton’s tendencies that he makes a conscious effort to put his best 11 players on the field for every separate situation. These factors lead me to believe that Horton will have no trouble with finding creative ways to maximize Barkevious Mingo’s talents without minimizing the roles of Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard. The question now is “How will Horton do it?”
The Aldon Smith-Type Plan
Ever since the Browns selected Barkevious Mingo, I’ve expected the Browns to put an “Aldon Smith-type plan” in place for how they use him. For those who do not know who Aldon Smith is, Smith was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the seventh overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. During Smith’s rookie season, he never started a single game, but he was in on 616 defensive snaps (50.8% of the team’s total defensive snaps) in 18 games while splitting time with starting outside linebacker Parys Haralson (in on 577 or 47.6% of the team’s total defensive snaps). Smith made the most of his opportunities as a situational pass rusher and produced 17 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, and 43 quarterback hurries. During Smith’s second season as a pro, his role expanded in a big way. His defensive snap total jumped to 1,223 snaps (95.5% of the team’s total defensive snaps) while starting all 19 games. In his expanded role, Smith produced 20 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, and 49 quarterback hurries.
Smith’s production may be an unrealistic expectation for Mingo, but a similar plan for how often and when the Browns have Mingo on the field should be expected. As a rookie, Smith rushed the passer on 441 snaps, dropped into coverage on 49 snaps, and defended against the run on 126 snaps. As Mingo gets acclimated to the speed and physicality of the NFL, a similar snap distribution should be expected.
Although Barkevious Mingo (combine results here) and Aldon Smith (combine results here) are not the exact same type of player, they are each extremely explosive and fluid athletes. These traits make them the type of pass rushers that defensive coordinators love to take advantage of on pass-rush stunts. This has proven to be true during each of Smith’s first two seasons in the NFL as he has regularly been used in conjunction with All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith on stunts. In the following illustrations, I will take a look at two pass-rush stunts that resulted in sacks during Smith’s rookie season.
It is third and 12 and the 49ers have a 17-3 lead early in the fourth quarter. Considering the situation, it is safe to assume that the Browns will be passing the ball. With this in mind, the 49ers have outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks lined up with his hand in the dirt as a nine-technique defensive end on the left of the formation, defensive tackle Demarcus Dobbs standing up in the A-gap between the right guard and center, Justin Smith lined up in a four-technique on the left tackle’s inside shoulder, and Aldon Smith lined up as a right outside linebacker (circled). Although the 49ers are known as a 3-4 team, this is a glorified four-man front.
At the snap of the ball, Aldon Smith takes two steps upfield as if he is threatening the left tackle’s outside shoulder. Justin Smith attacks the B-gap between the left guard and tackle. Dobbs explodes off the line of scrimmage toward the center’s right shoulder. Brooks begins a path around the outside, threatening the right tackle’s upfield shoulder.
After Aldon Smith’s two steps upfield, he plants his right foot in the ground and changes direction. He begins to make his way behind the interior defensive linemen. While Dobbs rushes toward the center, the right guard steps to his inside and attempts to block him from going through the A-gap between the right guard and center. The center does his best to push Dobbs away with his right arm while looking to the A-gap between he and the left guard. Justin Smith penetrates the B-gap between the left guard and tackle, occupying each of them. Brooks continues his path upfield toward the outside of the right tackle. It seems as though a stunt involving Dobbs, Justin Smith, and Aldon Smith is beginning to take place.
The key to the stunt is Dobbs. He must occupy the right guard long enough for Aldon Smith to get around and through the B-gap between the right guard and tackle. Rather than rushing toward the quarterback, Dobbs grabs ahold of the right guard’s right shoulder pad; keeping the guard from protecting the B-gap. Aldon Smith makes his way around the guard and begins to head upfield toward the quarterback.
Smith builds up speed and momentum as he begins to close in on the quarterback. You can see the right guard and center making an attempt to catch up, but it is too late. The stunt was executed to perfection.
Smith wraps up the quarterback and brings him down for a seven-yard loss on the play.
Once again, the 49ers line up in a glorified four-man front with outside linebacker Parys Haralson (#98) lined up as a nine-technique defensive end with his hand in the dirt on the left side of the formation, Ray McDonald (#91) lined up as a one-technique defensive tackle in the A-gap between the right guard and center, Justin Smith (#94) lined up in a four-technique on the inside shoulder of the left tackle, and Aldon Smith lined up as a right outside linebacker (circled)
At the snap of the ball, Aldon Smith takes four quick steps to the outside, threatening the left tackle’s upfield shoulder. After the four steps, he plants his right foot in the ground and makes his way toward the inside of the formation. Haralson comes out of his three-point stance and rushes to the outside, threatening the right tackle’s upfield shoulder. McDonald explodes off the line of scrimmage and attempts to penetrate the A-gap between the center and right guard. Justin Smith comes off the line with his arms wide open and engages with the left guard.
As Aldon Smith begins his path toward the inside of the formation, it appears that a stunt involving he and Justin Smith is taking shape. With McDonald occupying the center and Justin Smith occupying the left guard, there is a large void in the A-gap between the center and left guard. The tailback is in pass protection with his eyes to the outside of the left tackle. However, judging by the way the offensive line has blocked the pass rush, it seems that the back is responsible for the A-gap between the center and left guard.
There is no way to know for sure which pass protector is responsible for who without talking to the coaches or players. I can only go by what I see. I could be wrong in assuming that the A-gap is the back’s responsibility.
This HD view of the previous image presents another detail that I did not previously point out. Justin Smith has his left arm around the left guard and is essentially giving him a big hug. This explains why Smith had his arms wide open when he fired out of his stance at the snap. The hold allows Smith to drive the guard in whichever direction he wishes and aids tremendously in creating a large void in the A-gap for Aldon Smith to penetrate through on the stunt.
Defensive holding is extremely difficult for officials to notice and it is very rarely flagged.
At this point in the play, Aldon Smith has gained a full head of steam and he is beginning to close in on the quarterback. The tailback recognizes this and steps up in a late attempt to keep Smith from sacking the quarterback.
The late block attempt from the back forces Smith to dip and bend around him and grab the quarterback around the waist. The quarterback is strong and keeps looking downfield in hopes of finding a receiver.
Even though he has fallen to the ground, Aldon Smith continues to try to bring the quarterback down. As Smith was closing in on the quarterback, the left guard that Justin Smith was holding turned around to see what was going on. Just after the guard turned away from Justin Smith, he pushed him hard in the back and into his quarterback.
The force from the guard getting pushed into the quarterback combined with Aldon Smith hanging onto the quarterback’s lower body brings him down for a six-yard loss.
You can see in the two plays how fluid, agile, and explosive Aldon Smith is when he is put to use on pass-rush stunts. Although the following play from the Chick-Fil-A Bowl between LSU and Clemson does not involve a stunt, it is easy to see that Barkevious Mingo possesses similar athletic ability that will give him a chance to be very productive when used similarly.
Prior to the snap, Mingo is lined up as a nine-technique defensive end on the outside shoulder of the right tight end (circled).
At the snap of the ball, Mingo’s first step is to the inside. The offense is running a triple option power run play out of the Pistol that involves the left guard and tackle pulling to the right (Mingo’s side). The quarterback is taught to read the right defensive end on the play. If the defensive end stays outside, the quarterback is taught to give the handoff to the fullback running behind the pulling guard and tackle. If the defensive end pursues the fullback to the inside, the quarterback is taught to pull the ball out of the fullback’s belly and run around the outside in pitch relationship with the tailback. The quarterback is taught to read the next defender to the outside. If the defender closes in on the quarterback, he must pitch the ball to the tailback. If the defender stays to the outside; taking away the pitch option to the tailback, the quarterback is taught to keep the ball and run for as many yards as he possibly can.
With the right tight end releasing outside to block the left outside linebacker and the right tackle blocking down on the right outside linebacker, a large void has opened up in the C-gap between the tight end and tackle. Mingo shows impressive explosiveness and fluidity shooting through the gap unblocked.
With the right defensive end staying to the outside, the quarterback hands off to the fullback. As Mingo makes his way into the backfield, the pulling right guard closes in on him. The guard’s job is to seal Mingo to the outside. Mingo shows excellent flexibility as he bends around the guard and forces him to completely miss his block.
Here is another angle of the previous image. You can see Mingo bending and showing his flexibility as the guard reaches back for him.
Mingo closes in on the fullback and collides with him just after he receives the handoff. The impact of the hit causes the fullback to fumble the football (little circle). LSU recovered the fumble.
As the play showed, Barkevious Mingo has the type of incredible athletic ability that can make him extremely dangerous when unblocked and pursuing a ball carrier or quarterback at an angle. If the Browns take a page out of the 49ers’ book and use Mingo in conjunction with newly signed defensive end Desmond Bryant on pass-rush stunts, the decision could reap great rewards.
Throughout the offseason, I have been contemplating different ways that Ray Horton could possibly utilize Barkevious Mingo’s unique skill set. Aside from the ideas of using him on pass-rush stunts and as a standard edge rusher from his right outside linebacker position, I had minimal success. This changed the other day when I saw a very intuitive tweet by Jordan Plocher (@StarvingScout) from starvingscout.com. The tweet read “I think Horton is going to use Mingo outside in base and inside blitzing A-Gaps in his 2-4-5 Nickel Defense”. Although I did not originally think of this, I thought it was a brilliant idea.
After talking to Jordan and asking for his permission to use the tweet/idea in this article, I went to the tape to watch how Ray Horton used All-Pro inside linebacker Daryl Washington during his time as defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals. Having watched Washington (combine results) in the past, I knew that he was an incredible athlete, but I never realized quite how similar he and Mingo (combine results) are in how they move around on the field. They each possess excellent length, explosiveness, closing burst, and agility. The biggest thing that stood out in watching Washington was how devastating he can be when blitzing A-gaps. During the 2012 season, he produced nine sacks, four quarterback hits, and 10 quarterback hurries rushing primarily from the interior. These numbers placed Washington first in sacks, sixth in quarterback hits, and fourth in quarterback hurries amongst all inside linebackers.
The following illustrations will allow me to take a look at a couple of Daryl Washington’s sacks from the 2012 season.
The Cardinals come out in their base 3-4 defense with Daryl Washington lined up at weak inside linebacker (circled), a strong inside linebacker, two outside linebackers, a three-technique defensive tackle on the left guard’s outside shoulder, a nose tackle head up on the center, and a five-technique defensive end head up on the right tackle. Since the Vikings are employing three tight ends, the side with two tight ends is the strong side and the side with one tight end is the weak side. You can see that Washington is walking closer to the line of scrimmage prior to the snap. This is a hint that he will blitz on the play, but remember that players do not always blitz when they “show blitz”.
At the snap of the ball, Washington explodes through the A-gap between the left guard and center. With the three-technique defensive tackle occupying the left guard and the nose tackle occupying the center, this leaves the tailback responsible for Washington.
This is an HD angle of the previous image.
As the quarterback drops back to pass, he is immediately challenged with pressure in his face from Washington. The tailback quickly comes up from his position deep in the backfield in an attempt to block Washington and keep the play alive.
The tailback badly misses the block due to dropping his head and lunging at Washington. The quarterback has no chance to get away. Washington shows incredible closing burst and wraps him up a little over one second after the ball was snapped.
Here is an HD view of the previous image. If you click on the image, you can see the back with his head down after his missed block attempt.
Washington forces the quarterback a few more yards back in the backfield and then slams him to the turf for an eight-yard loss.
This was a beautiful job of scheming by Ray Horton. With defensive tackles occupying the left guard and center, the only player left to block Washington was the back. Expecting a tailback to block a player with Washington’s athletic ability one-on-one is a gigantic mismatch.
This time, the Cardinals are lined up in Horton’s 2-4-5 defense. In an attempt to cause pass protection issues, Washington (circled) and the strong inside linebacker, Paris Lenon (#51), are “sugaring the A-gaps”. Sugaring the A-gaps involves two linebackers showing blitz in the A-gaps. Since there are typically other defenders on the line of scrimmage, sugaring the A-gaps can confuse blockers and give offenses pass protection issues with or without blitzing.
At the snap of the ball, the offense looks to be running an outside zone play to the strong side. On a zone blocking run, the entire offensive line is coached to block the defender in the gap to the side where the run is going. However, it seems that the left guard got confused on his assignment and looked back to his left for a defender to block. With the center stepping to his right and blocking the strong inside linebacker, a large void has opened up in the A-gap between the center and left guard. This happens to be the gap that Washington was sugaring. While reading whether the quarterback will hand off the ball, he begins to penetrate through the gap.
I can not be certain that the left guard missed his assignment on the play, but based on how the rest of the offense executed and what I know about zone running plays, it looked like a missed assignment. With this being said, he may have been coached to block the defender in the gap to his outside.
In this image, you can see Washington running through the gap unblocked as the left guard looks for someone to block to his left. The quarterback is sticking out the ball toward the tailback. Washington must pursue slowly as he waits to see if the quarterback will execute a handoff.
The quarterback pulls the ball out of the back’s belly and rolls out to his left. As soon as Washington recognizes this, he accelerates toward the quarterback.
Washington shows impressive closing burst as he quickly closes in on the quarterback. With the right outside linebacker pursuing from the outside, the only direction the quarterback is able to run is backwards.
Washington wraps up the quarterback’s legs as the right outside linebacker jumps on top of him. The sack results in a 12-yard loss.
Daryl Washington’s athletic ability was on display once again as he chased down Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Although Vick is not the athlete he once was, he is still one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the NFL. The fact that Washington closed in on Vick so quickly is noteworthy.
The following play from the Chick-Fil-A Bowl between LSU and Clemson will help to illustrate how impactful Barkevious Mingo can be when he is unblocked and shooting straight into the backfield.
Prior to the snap, LSU shifts the left side of their defensive line to the right in an attempt to cause pass protection issues for Clemson’s offensive line. Mingo is lined up as the left defensive end (circled).
This image shows Mingo in the process of shifting from outside the left tackle to a three-technique position in the B-gap between the right guard and tackle.
As soon as the shift is executed, the center snaps the ball. Even with the shift causing Mingo to move laterally, he still gets a good jump on the snap.
LSU runs a stunt on the right side of their defensive line that allows the right defensive tackle to occupy the right guard and center as the left defensive tackle loops around behind him. The left outside linebacker occupies the right tackle by initially threatening to blitz to his outside. With the right guard and tackle occupied, Mingo explodes into the backfield completely unblocked.
Here is an endzone angle of the previous image. You can see the size of the gap that Mingo is running through.
Due to the offensive line pass protecting and the quarterback faking a handoff to the tailback, this looks to be a play action pass. With Mingo shooting into the backfield so quickly, the play has little chance of success.
Mingo shows rare closing burst as he closes in on the quarterback. The quarterback turns to his left in an attempt to get away, but Mingo wraps him up.
Mingo brings down the quarterback for a loss of six on the play. Impressively, it took him only one second to penetrate into the backfield and bring down the quarterback.
Although Barkevious Mingo was not rushing from an inside linebacker position on the play, you can see why using Mingo in the same capacity as Daryl Washington could be lethal on obvious passing downs. Not only does blitzing the A-gaps make a lot of sense for Mingo’s skill set, but it also allows Ray Horton to get his best 11 defenders on the field together.
Moving forward, I could see defensive coordinators at all levels of football begin to use their most athletic pass rushers as interior blitzers. This would create favorable matchups for defenses and keep offenses from anticipating where certain rushers will line up on every play. Additionally, it could give some value to extremely athletic pass rushers that struggle to bend and win on the edge against NFL offensive tackles.
As this piece highlights, there is no reason to worry about Barkevious Mingo likely being used as a situational pass rusher during his rookie season. Mingo may not be the same player as Aldon Smith, but Smith’s usage and production during his rookie season is a prime example of why Mingo can be highly productive even in a situational role. Ray Horton has always been the type of coordinator that adjusts to his personnel and there is no reason to believe he will stop now. Even if Horton does not use the ideas in this piece, expect him to find plenty of creative ways to maximize the talents of Mingo, Paul Kruger, and Jabaal Sheard all on the field at the same time.
I would just like to give a special thanks to all of the guys at ProFootballFocus.com for all of the work that they do. Many of the statistics and snap totals included in this piece were provided by PFF.