It was garbage time. The stadium was being cleared out by fans who had watched the Cardinals build a 13-point lead over the hometown Jaguars. A second past the two-minute warning was all that was left when inside linebacker Kevin Minter made his season debut 11 weeks into his rookie year.
He was on the point of the Jags’ Trips Bunch set, in a two-point stance with his knees bent, chest hanging over his toes and his arms dangling to his sides. Abruptly, the play began and he jammed the point-man and passed him off to the deep coverage, changing focus to the outside receiver running a supposed hitch route that was really serving as a rub. It was designed to get the flat receiver open, and he ran away from Minter and caught a quick pass from quarterback Chad Henne. Just like that, Minter’s first play was over.
It proved to be his only play that season. A second-round selection from Louisiana State University, Minter was primarily a backup and special teamer on a talented defense that included veterans Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. It was different from his LSU days, when the coaches couldn’t get him off the field. In a game against Florida his junior year, he suffered from dehydration and left the field briefly but came back. By the game’s end, he recorded 20 tackles.
Now in the pros, he was watching from the sideline.
Since his first season, there’s been changes in Arizona. Dansby left for the Cleveland Browns in free agency, and the Cardinals didn’t sign a replacement. It’s possible they didn’t see one in free agency suitable for their defense. It’s also possible they have one on their roster already in Minter.
Minter’s a slightly different linebacker than Dansby, however. Whereas Dansby excelled in coverage more than run defense, Minter is better against the run than the pass, making him a better complement to the ultra-speedy Washington. He’s not as agile or quick as Dansby is. He also doesn’t cover the same ground in coverage as Dansby does. He’s better playing zone underneath, carrying receivers up the seam for a short distance and passing them off to the safeties. Unlike Dansby, who can mirror a receiver outside the hashes.
Minter’s cover skills shouldn’t be a significant concern despite his limitations, but there are questions. In defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ scheme, he’ll likely play more zone underneath and cover running backs leaking out of the backfield like he did at LSU.
Looking back at his college film, Minter showed on numerous occasions that he’s best fit playing zone coverage, where he can keep his eyes on the quarterback and explode downhill when the ball’s been thrown. Here’s an example against Clemson.
It’s fourth-and-9 in the second quarter in a 14-13 game. Clemson’s in spread formation and LSU has countered with their defenders spread out wide as well, matching the offense’s alignments. The only exception is Minter, who is in between the hashes at the middle of the field. He’s expected to cover the seam, or what some frequently call the “pipe” in Cover 2, LSU’s coverage of choice.
There are two ways to play the pipe in Cover 2. If it’s a pure Cover 2 zone, the MIKE linebacker can drop straight down the seam with his eyes on the quarterback. If it’s a Cover 2 variation, such as the Tampa 2, it essentially becomes off-man coverage down the seam when threatened with offensive verticals. In this instance, it’s traditional zone coverage and Minter’s dropping to the first-down marker at the 32-yard line.
When Clemson hurries the snap, Minter watches the two receivers to his right run out-breaking routes, then focuses on the quarterback who is scrambling. Quarterback Tajh Boyd escapes outside the pocket opposite of Minter and tries to make a run for the chains. Minter, meanwhile, sees and runs laterally toward Boyd in an attempt to intersect a straight-ahead run and force him back to the middle of the field, where there are defensive linemen backtracking to make the tackle. He does it successfully, making the tackle on his own by clotheslining Boyd at the waist with his right arm as the quarterback cuts inside (5:57).
This type of coverage is ideal for Minter. He can see the play and react accordingly. But there will be times when he’s forced to play off-man or tight-man coverage downfield, and that’s when it becomes interesting because it’s uncertain how much he’s developed in that area, and if he has adequate skills to hold up in the long-term. Additionally, questions arise about how he’ll fare with more responsibility, when he’s required to pass off and pick up crossers or run deeper down the seam, for example.
The answers to these questions may lie in glimpses of Minter’s college film, which frequently shows him carrying crosses for a short distance or simply covering underneath in what amounts to basically a “Robber” role. This form of coverage is common among college linebackers because it lets them be free and doesn’t expose their vulnerabilities, making them difficult to evaluate.
On that note, Minter was asked to run the seam in man coverage for a longer distance against Mississippi State at least once and he was beaten.
It was first-and-10 and he was detached from the box to match the flexed alignment of the slot receiver. When the play began, the distance between the two quickly closed, forcing Minter to turn his hips downfield and start running with the receiver. He covered inside but lacked the foot speed to stay with the receiver once they crossed the near hash and went to the middle of the field. His tightness and lack of length showed up as well, and he was beaten over the top for a big gain (1:55).
He’s not expected to do a significant amount of coverage duties like the above, but Minter will have to mirror tight ends and running backs underneath. The question becomes if he has enough foot speed to matchup with them. Teams will find this out quickly because they’ll put him in isolated coverage situations with running backs in the flat.
It’ll be up to him to keep up, and compensate for his limitations by playing with better technique and discipline.