September 18, 2014

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Browns outside linebackers had best game vs. Patriots, hope to finish disappointing year on strong note

BEREA — Barkevious Mingo’s rookie resume isn’t what he’d hoped, but he’s shown signs of life the last two weeks, sacked future Hall of Famer Tom Brady on Sunday and has three games left to leave a good final impression.

“The work that we’ve been putting in is paying off,” he said Friday. “Every blocker is different. So it goes back to us preparing for them.

“We know what we have to do to get past those guys, and when we come off them, we execute at a high level, we get rewarded with a sack.”

Mingo had company in the Patriots backfield last week from his fellow outside linebackers. Paul Kruger had two sacks, a forced fumble and a pass defensed, and Jabaal Sheard had a sack.

Coordinator Ray Horton’s attacking 3-4 defense is supposed to be driven by the outside linebackers, but the pass rush hasn’t been as ferocious as hoped. The Browns are tied for ninth with 37 sacks, but many have come through blitzes. Mingo leads the team with five sacks, followed by 4.5 each from Kruger and Sheard, and the Patriots game was the first in which all three registered one.

“For the last few weeks we really wanted to emphasize getting pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “So we really focused on the one-on-one, the techniques and got a lot of extra work in that regard. Last week it paid off and hopefully that continues.”

Mingo had a sack in each of his first three games — the first player since Oakland’s Tommy Kelly in 2004 — then endured a three-game drought. He added a fourth sack, then went four games without one before dropping Brady to take the Patriots out of field-goal range in the second quarter. He ended a six-game stretch without a pass defensed the previous week with a pair against Jacksonville.

Mingo, the No. 6 pick in the draft, leads the team with five sacks and is tied for second among NFL rookies, but admitted they’re harder to come by than he thought in May or September.

“I guess everybody expects the sacks just to keep coming, but it’s not that case,” he said. “These guys (offensive linemen) are getting paid and getting paid a lot and they perform their jobs at a high level. So that’s forcing us to elevate our level of play and exceed or match what they’re doing and make plays for ourselves.”

The bumps, bruises (including one on his lung that cost him the opener) and growing pains haven’t taken the starch out of Mingo, all 240 pounds of him. He remains confident he’ll get to the point where the sacks come one after another.

“Definitely. I’m working toward that goal and I know what kind of player I want to be,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy, but I think I can get there.”

Kruger has no doubts about the future of his young teammate.

“He’s very steady on a good track,” Kruger said. “This season’s going to bring highs and lows and different challenges and different opportunities, and Mingo is a guy who is going to continue to climb the ladder to success. He’s just got all the attributes mentally, physically, he’s a competitor, so there’s no question in my mind.”

Mingo and Kruger were the marquee additions of the offseason — Mingo through the draft and Kruger as a $40.5 million free agent. They were expected to rack up the sacks and send fear shooting through opposing quarterbacks, but reality has been different.

Kruger has been better against the run than some scouting reports forecasted, but hasn’t registered a sack nine times. He had 13.5 for the Ravens last year, including 4.5 in the postseason.

“There was frustration. I have a high standard for myself and I wanted to be a major contributor in that way,” said Kruger, who played his best game of the year against New England. “So I didn’t reach the numbers I wanted to. But looking forward, we’ve still got three opportunities to make some good things happen.”

“He wants to do more,” Horton said. “He’s doing everything that he can. We’re not disappointed.”

Sheard is the third member of the rotation and missed three games with a knee injury earlier in the year. He led the team in sacks his first two years with 8.5 and seven, then was asked to transition from defensive end to outside linebacker before this season.

“Our defense is ranked high (No. 7) for a reason — it’s guys like Jabaal,” Kruger said. “You’re going to see Mingo make amazing plays and Jabaal make amazing plays. Then there’s going to be some quiet games, too. But if you understand the game and you watch the tape, they’re doing their job, they’re doing what they’re coached to do.”

Chudzinski has stressed the importance of a strong finish to the lost season for the young team, and Horton said that’s especially true for Mingo and Sheard, who are in their first season at the position.

“It’s critical,” Horton said. “We’ve asked them to do something totally different than they’ve ever done. Those are the guys as you look forward to next year will take the biggest leaps, because it’s a totally different thing for them.”

“These next three weeks are going to be huge and they give us a jump on next year,” Sheard said.

Kruger doesn’t need to see the final three games to know what the outside linebackers can do.

“I have no doubt in my mind that myself and these two are the guys for the job,” he said. “We have all the playmaking ability in the world. It’s just about us going out and doing it and the right opportunities being there.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.