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11 Nov 2015

Film Room: Pernell McPhee

by Cian Fahey

Pernell McPhee didn't deserve our skepticism.

When the former Baltimore Ravens defender entered free agency this past offseason, he was immediately viewed through the prism of Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe. Ellerbe and Kruger played similar roles in the Ravens' front seven, Ellerbe at inside linebacker and Kruger playing outside like McPhee. Their roles were similar because they weren't stars, but complementary pieces who played in part-time roles for multiple seasons. Kruger and Ellerbe won a Super Bowl with the Ravens before their separate ventures into free agency. As is often the case, players who play well on the biggest stages are overrated by other suitors. The Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins fell into that trap with Kruger and Ellerbe respectively.

McPhee moved around for the Ravens because of their depth at outside linebacker. He played 47.7 percent of defensive snaps during his final year in John Harbaugh's defense. Each of Courtney Upshaw, Elvis Dumervil, and Terrell Suggs played more than McPhee. After signing a deal with Chicago worth nearly $40 million, it's no surprise that McPhee is a much greater presence in the Bears' defense. McPhee has played 79.9 percent of his team's defensive snaps this season. Only three players have played a higher percentage, and two of those are defensive backs.

The Chicago Bears are a team in transition, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. They rank 28th overall in DVOA, 24th against the pass and 31st against the run. A huge percentage of McPhee's work may be done in vain this year in terms of winning and losing, but he is establishing himself as a foundation piece for the Bears moving forward while being one of the most under-appreciated players in the league. The former fifth-round pick will turn 27 years old next month. He is not a young player, but he is still in the early stages of his prime. John Fox and Vic Fangio will be relying on McPhee to be a staple of their defensive front for the span of his contract.

Even though McPhee is a versatile player who offers value to his team in different ways, the main focus for any edge defender is his ability to rush the passer. The Bears have struggled to get to the quarterback this season. As a team they have just 14 sacks, good enough for 25th in the league. Their inability to stop the run hasn't helped to put offenses in third-and-long situations, while their lack of individually gifted pass-rushing options around McPhee make for a limited group. McPhee leads the team with five sacks. Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, and Jarvis Jenkins are the team's other main pass-rushing threats after the trade of Jared Allen. Each should be considered a below-average player at this stage of their respective careers.

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McPhee has an irregular body type. He is officially listed at 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, so he is shorter and wider than most edge rushers excelling in the NFL today. What he lacks in length, McPhee makes up for in strength and balance. He is able to overpower offensive tackles while moving at speed because of his low center of gravity and stout lower body. In the above play, McPhee is able to explode through Detroit Lions right tackle LaAdrian Waddle before sacking quarterback Matthew Stafford. McPhee's approach is about violence and explosiveness. He doesn't extend his hands away from his body to keep the offensive lineman off of him, he keeps his hands tight and follows through behind them with his chest/head.

This kind of violence at that kind of speed is difficult for any tackle to deal with.

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It's hard not to think of James Harrison when watching McPhee. Harrison never had the hair falling out of the back of his helmet, but the duo look very similar on the field. Harrison was a shorter, wider edge defender than most, like McPhee, and both relied on their power, violence, and intensity to explode through blockers. Leaving either player working against a tight end is/was a bad idea because of their athletic traits and precise actions. On this play against the Oakland Raiders, McPhee is able to show off his power and quickness against the run. The Raiders have three tight ends to his side of the field, expecting to double-team him with two.

The outside linebacker is too quick to be double-teamed and too strong to be pushed out of the play once he has broken inside. Penetrating inside to disrupt running plays is something at which McPhee excels. It was notable how often the San Diego Chargers ran away from him in their Week 9 matchup because of this.

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The Chargers ran for 77 yards on 19 carries Monday night. Forty-one of those yards and 10 of those carries went outside the left guard when McPhee was lined up at left outside linebacker. Two more runs were negated by penalty. The Chargers' biggest run of the game, a 15-yard rush from Danny Woodhead, went up the middle on a play where McPhee was setting the edge outside. The Chargers didn't look to run at McPhee, and throughout the first quarter he was consistently shutting down any cutback opportunities by aggressively chasing plays down from behind. In the above play, McPhee penetrates past Antonio Gates' face to put himself in position to play Woodhead if the running back hesitates or looks to cut back.

Woodhead didn't need to do anything but follow his blocking to the other side of the field at speed because the rest of the Bears defense showed no resistance against the Chargers blockers. When teams have looked to run at McPhee this year, they have been met with consistent resistence.

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It's obvious that McPhee has the strength and balance to set the edge against tight ends and offensive tackles when asked to, but he also has discipline and awareness. McPhee regularly establishes himself just past the line of scrimmage and maintains control of his blocker while locating the running back to force him back inside before disengaging to chase him down from behind. He is also quick to advance downfield when those opportunities arise. That is what happens in the above play. The Chargers leave McPhee unblocked at the snap, so he immediately accelerates to meet the fullback deep behind the line of scrimmage.

Even though he finishes this play on his back after a double-team, McPhee had already done the damage he needed to do. By meeting the fullback so deep in the backfield and stopping him in his tracks, he prevented the left guard from pulling across to lead block for Melvin Gordon. Gordon was forced to stop his feet and wait for his blockers to recover so he was ultimately swarmed by the rest of the Bears defense.

Despite the fact that the Chargers are dealing with offensive line injury issues for the second successive season and Philip Rivers is in the top 10 in terms of total sacks this season, it's not easy to bring him down before the ball has been thrown. Rivers is only in the top 10 because he is throwing the ball at a historically high rate. The Chargers can ask him to do this behind a patchwork offensive line because of his exceptional mental acumen, quick release, and precise pocket movement. Even though McPhee couldn't sack him in Week 9, he disrupted the quarterback on a number of occasions.

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On this play, McPhee moved to the right side of the defense and worked against Chris Hairston. McPhee forces his way across Hairston's face before arriving in a double-team with the left guard. His built-up momentum allows him to keep moving towards the quarterback. McPhee sheds both blockers before closing on Rivers, forcing the quarterback to check the ball down with unclean mechanics to avoid the sack. McPhee is able to land a clean hit on the quarterback, highlighting how close he came to sacking the veteran.

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Rivers makes more awkward throws from tight pockets than any quarterback in the NFL. The kind of consistent pressure he works under should lead to more mistakes than it does. In the above play, McPhee comes off the left side at speed before exploding into right tackle Joseph Barksdale. Barksdale fights for his position, but he has been knocked backwards and is eventually shifted out of the way. Rivers was forced to climb up and away in the pocket because of McPhee's work off the edge. He released the ball across his body because of this as McPhee closed on him in the pocket. Rivers still threw a catchable pass to his receiver, but it wasn't in an ideal spot for the receiver, who dropped the ball.

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Although he won't bend the edge like Robert Quinn, McPhee is fast enough to be considered a dual-threat pass rusher. He can beat offensive tackles with his speed around the edge, and his low center of gravity means it can be tough for bigger tackles to engage him when he works around their outside shoulders. In this game, the best example of his speed came on a stunt. McPhee worked behind his defensive tackle at pace before turning through the A-gap between the center and the right guard. He was moving at such speed that the center was able to force him to the ground, but not before he had forced his way into Rivers. The quarterback got rid of the ball again, but this time his uncomfortable setup saw him throw the ball into the ground.

The Bears are an odd team at this point. Jay Cutler's presence has put the offense in some kind of purgatory because the franchise seemed ready to move on from him after the firing of Marc Trestman. Cutler has played well this year, but the team is just 3-5 and the defense is awaiting another influx of youth to revitalize it. Regardless of what happens with Cutler, the Bears are going to be changing a lot of their roster over the coming years. Phil Emery failed in Chicago because he missed on too many picks and didn't make prudent investments in free agency. It's still unclear if the new regime can succeed where he failed, but McPhee is clearly an early positive.

McPhee isn't Paul Kruger or Dannell Ellerbe -- he's a much better player than both.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 11 Nov 2015

5 comments, Last at 11 Nov 2015, 3:36pm by Jimmy

Comments

1
by jonnyblazin :: Wed, 11/11/2015 - 11:42am

"McPhee isn't Paul Kruger or Dannell Ellerbe -- he's a much better player than both."

This may be a testament to the decline of the Ravens defensive coaching staff. It used to be that they always could maximize the effectiveness of marginal players or average players. Now it seems the Ravens underutilized McPhee (given that Upshaw saw more snaps than him), and he's flourishing in a full time role.

2
by Dave Bernreuther :: Wed, 11/11/2015 - 1:36pm

I often point to lack of other exceptional options and good values whenever someone says that "Grigson needs to fix the OL and defense" without offering a practical idea as to what should've been differently...

But I really hoped they'd have gone after McPhee this last offseason. Especially with Pagano's ex-Raven fetish. The Ravens used him creatively and Manusky is a pretty pass rush good creator too, and he even fits well with the antiquated Run the Ball/Stop the Run mindset too. His deal wasn't that bad, either, at least as far as first-day signings go.

But hey, maybe they did, but the Bears simply offered more. I'm not going to get mad if they said no to an outrageous demand either.

3
by TomC :: Wed, 11/11/2015 - 3:27pm

I did not like the signing at the time, and McPhee looked underwhelming in preseason and the opener, but I have definitely come around. On the other hand, I'm very disappointed so far in Eddie Goldman, who has looked way too easy to push around for a nose tackle taken high in the draft. He's only a rookie, but still...

5
by Jimmy :: Wed, 11/11/2015 - 3:36pm

Goldman looked better when Raitliff was around, he probably isn't ready to start yet. He looked plenty strong when he threw Lang at Lacy in his first career game.

4
by Jimmy :: Wed, 11/11/2015 - 3:35pm

Young and Houston are only 'bad players' because they got seriously injured last year. Houston was playing the run very well before he tore his ACL and Young looked like free agency's bargain signing until he tore his Achilles.

McPhee has been a very pleasant surprise though.