As a part of our series on the 2013/14 Ravens defense, we’re going to start looking at young veterans who are projected to have a big impact this fall. This piece will look at Pernell McPhee, who had a big rookie year but struggled with injuries in 2012. Don’t miss our previous parts of this series: 1) Arthur Brown 2) Matt Elam 3) John Simon 4) Brandon Williams 5) Courtney Upshaw 6) Jimmy Smith and 7) Corey Graham.
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As I mentioned above, Pernell McPhee had a big rookie year in 2011 – so much so that he was ProFootballFocus’s Secret Superstar for the Ravens heading into 2012. He got a sack, hit, or hurry on 9.2% of his pass rushing snaps, good for 7th out of all defensive tackles who took a pass rushing snap – over 150 players. (Side note: PFF listed McPhee as a DT in 2011 but a DE in 2012, as the Ravens defense underwent tweaks at the hands of Dean Pees.)
But after the 2011 season, McPhee had two arthroscopic knee surgeries. In 2012, he didn’t look like the same player he was the year before. Even after healing from the knee injuries, McPhee played through a torn groin for much of the season. His productivity dipped significantly – despite playing nearly 150 more snaps than in his rookie season.
Now, McPhee faces a whole new challenge. According to multiple sources, McPhee will transition to a pass-rushing OLB position, much like the one vacated by Paul Kruger. McPhee appears to have trimmed a significant amount of body fat and is 100% healthy for the first time in a year. There’s a lot to be excited about, so I took a look at the film to see what we can expect in 2013.
Against the Run
Though all the talk about McPhee has to do with rushing the passer, he’s pretty stout against the run as well. He showed the ability to stop the run from a variety of spots (playing everything from 1-technique on the inside shoulder of the guard to the “wide 9″ technique, where he set the edge), and he appeared to be able to both one- and occasionally two-gap.
There were, of course, some negative plays, particularly against zone schemes, where McPhee was easily moved out of the way of the ball carrier. However, against power rushing schemes he was very rarely pushed backward, even against strong double teams. He also showed good vision and awareness, which we can see in the following play.
In the first slide you’ll see McPhee lined up just outside the right tackle. The Patriots are in a trips formation with a singleback, Danny Woodhead. In the second slide you’ll see McPhee in good position after the snap – he has a wide base, hasn’t given up any ground, and is fighting to keep the lineman’s hands off him. I felt that one of McPhee’s biggest strengths were his hands. He seems adept at keeping linemen from locking him up.
However, in the third slide it appears McPhee has basically taken himself out of the play. He looks like he’s overcommitted to the gap that Woodhead originally cut toward, though Woodhead has other ideas. Seeing the hole collapsing around him, Woodhead wants to cut to the outside.
McPhee maintains awareness, though, and uses his leverage to move around the man blocking him and help bring Woodhead down for no gain.
I saw this situation more than once – where McPhee looked to be out of the play but fought back to make a tackle. As I said before, he has good awareness, and he’s clearly a fighter. He doesn’t give up on plays.
Rushing the Passer
As I’ve mentioned, McPhee had a lot of success rushing the passer in his rookie season. But last year he was clearly not the same explosive athlete because of his numerous injuries. Because McPhee will likely become a situational, pass-rushing LB, I decided to look at some of his tape from 2011 to get a more accurate picture of his abilities.
A few things stuck out. First, as I mentioned above, he has strong hands. McPhee actively uses his hands to keep linemen off him, and he is successful more often than not. Most opponents struggled to get under his pads and lock in a block.
Secondly, McPhee has a pretty strong dip and rip move. When healthy he showed above average balance coming off the edge (see slide 3 below), though this was lost in 2012. However, even when he was hurt I saw some successful rip moves against very good players (like the Patriots’ Sebastian Vollmer).
Finally, the healthy version of McPhee was very quick off the line and made some opponents look pretty bad. Below is a sack against Andy Dalton. In the second slide, you can see how quickly McPhee has turned the corner. Bengals LT Andre Whitworth is, to put it mildly, out of position. He even holds McPhee, as you can clearly see in the third frame, but it’s no use. Down goes Dalton.
Though I was impressed by what I saw on film in 2011, there were some obvious flaws in McPhee’s game. He was pancaked or put to the ground more often than I’d like to see, particularly by agile linemen who sidestepped and used his forward momentum against him. He also struggled with his bullrush, and I never saw a swim move, meaning his pass rushing techniques are limited to simple explosiveness and the dip-and-rip.
Finally, though not a fatal flaw, I saw other linemen directing McPhee just before the snap way too often. Ngata had to re-direct him a bunch, sometimes causing McPhee to be out of position or even out of his stance at the snap. One time this resulted in the easiest pancake of some lineman’s career.
I have a feeling this was a combination of him being a rookie in 2011 and him being hurt, missing OTAs, and missing much of training camp in 2012. I have faith that, given time, he will learn where to be – even if he has to relearn his position this offseason.
McPhee has been a bit of a moving target in his short career. Wildly successful in a limited role as a rookie, he saw greater playing time his sophomore year despite numerous injuries and his productivity declined. Now, he is healthy again, but the Ravens are going to move him to a pass-rushing OLB spot.
So what to expect from the fickle McPhee? I think that, based on what I saw in 2011, he can be successful as a “joker” or “jack” linebacker. He has explosive quickness and the ability to turn the corner and get to the QB. His most successful snaps came as a 4-3 DE, either in a traditional 4-3 front or in a hybrid front with 4-3 responsibilities. Typically, these are the players who are most successful making the jump to OLB.
He is also a decent, but not great, run stopper, which is something of a bonus – he won’t be entirely useless if he gets stuck on the field against a hurry up offense that wants to run at him.
However, the Ravens are suddenly very deep at OLB. Suggs, Dumervil, Upshaw, and even Albert McClellan are all listed ahead of McPhee on the depth chart. I have a feeling this will be a transitional year for McPhee…learning the linebacker position, seeing situational play, and filling in if someone goes down with an injury. Both Suggs and Dumervil will likely be gone in a year or two, and McPhee could be the next man up at that point.