Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter calls out a play to his teammates in Week 4 against the Rams.
Kevin Minter has this slow, southern drawl which puts conversations at ease. When the 24-year-old Louisiana native does interviews in a crowded and noisy locker room, it still feels like a relaxed back-and-forth between friends.
On the field, he has no time for such pleasantry, because in the NFL there's no such thing as a low-key inside linebacker.
"He's not the rah-rah loud guy, where you walk into the locker room and hear a big mouth," insider linebackers coach Larry Foote said. "That's not him. But when it's time in between the lines, he's vocal."
Minter must flip a switch, because communication may be the most essential tool for an inside linebacker. Minter is the guy in the Cardinals defensive huddle that gets the play-call and relays it to everyone else. He must bark out alignments and then correct any mistakes before the offense snaps the ball.
In his first year on the job, Minter has been lauded for his work as the point man, but there are always going to be instances of communication gone wrong.
The Bears scored a 48-yard touchdown on a mix-up in the secondary. Rams running back Todd Gurley found gaps in the Cardinals' rush defense. Last week, the slant-turned-touchdown pass to Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant should have been more closely covered.
Those are glaring mistakes, but keeping 11 players on the same page for an entire game is a tough task, no matter how much work is put in. Foote made the transition from inside linebacker to coach this offseason, and said the defense has communicated well overall with new pieces.
"It ain't as good as I was in there, of course," Foote joked. "No, it's up to par, definitely. I'm not harping every week about miscommunications. They're doing a great job, and we stress that."
Minter is in his third year now with the Cardinals, but his first with significant playing time. He's followed in the inside linebacker footsteps of Karlos Dansby and Foote, a pair of seasoned veterans.
"Sitting back and watching did help, but you can't put a price on experience," Minter said. "That was my Achilles' heel, obviously, my experience compared to Foote and Karlos in the past couple years. But watching them was definitely a plus. Obviously I was anxious to play, but I feel like it helped. And then just being out there and getting a feel for the game, getting a feel for the speed, it's definitely gotten easier."
While Minter is one of the defense's least experienced starters, the Cardinals didn't unload any of the middle linebacker's responsibility following Foote's retirement. Safety Rashad Johnson will help the secondary line up, but did the same last season with Foote in charge.
Johnson's been impressed with Minter's grasp of the defense from the start.
"The more you play, the easier it gets, but Kev, you really can't even tell that he's been in that learning curve," Johnson said. "The way he's been playing this season, the way he's taken
command of the front and gotten them lined up, having himself and the other linebackers lined up, he's done a really good job with it. He's a little bit brighter than what some people may think he is."
It's easy to be awed by the physical brilliance on display at NFL games, but at this level, that will only get a player so far. It's rare that a player can line up wrong and then make up for it with pure athleticism.
"You have a lot of talented guys that come out of the college level," Minter said. "You're wondering why they didn't make it in this league. It's all from the neck up."
That's why the duties of Minter and Johnson are of utmost importance. It's hard enough to slow down opposing offenses on an even playing field. Good luck doing it if there's any confusion at the snap.
"There are calls that we've got that have several checks within the one call," Johnson said. "A lot of the times, I'm giving the guys the 'Hold on' signal until the final formation is set. Then I can give them the signals to let them know what we're in. I take a big part in lining the guys up, making sure we're all on the same page and playing the same defense."
Minter does the same with the front seven. He may be laid-back off the field, but feels just as comfortable amidst the chaos on Sundays.
"I've been doing it for a long time now," Minter said. "It's what the position demands. I love playing 'Mike.' I love being in that role as the quarterback of the defense. It's what I was born to do."
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