OWINGS MILLS — Pernell McPhee kept barreling into the Cleveland Browns’ backfield last December, decking quarterback Colt McCoy twice for sacks.
It was the signature performance for the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive end during his rookie season, erasing his former obscurity hit after hit after hit.
Drafted in the fifth round out of Mississippi State, McPhee emerged as a dynamic sleeper as he finished second on the team with six sacks for the AFC North champions.
Only NFL Defensive Player of the Year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was a more productive pass rusher for the NFL’s third-ranked defense with his career-high14 sacks.
Now, McPhee has set his ambitions on loftier goals as he approaches his second NFL season.
"I want to play more snaps, make more plays, even try to get to the Pro Bowl," McPhee said.
That would be a welcome development for a defense that will be without Suggs for at least the majority of the season due to a partially torn Achilles tendon sustained in late April.
And McPhee is slated to battle Arthur Jones for the starting left defensive end job vacated by Cory Redding when the veteran defensive lineman signed with the Indianapolis Colts.
"I think both of us are going to go out and compete and do our best, do what we have to do to hold down the spot," McPhee said. "I was competing when [Redding] was here. This is a competitive game. You compete every day, all day."
McPhee is confident that his first season only offered a glimpse of what he’s capable of producing with expanded playing time.
He believes that 10 sacks isn’t out of the question.
"With ease, I feel it would be," McPhee said.
How McPhee performed as a situational pass rusher suggests that he’s correct in his self-assessment, that his opinion isn’t mere bravado.
In limited playing time, McPhee still tied for 23rd for sacks in the AFC with five other players: Richard Seymour (Oakland Raiders), Jonathan Fanene (Cincinnati Bengals), Aaron Maybin (New York Jets), Jared Odrick (Miami Dolphins) and Brooks Reed (Houston Texans).
The only rookies that had more sacks than McPhee last season were San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (13 sacks), Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (11 1/2 sacks), Cleveland Browns defensive end Jabaal Sheard (8 1/2 sacks) and Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Karl Klug (seven sacks). Other than Klug, they were all starters.
Against the Seattle Seahawks, McPhee was credited with five quarterback pressures on Tarvaris Jackson in just 15 rushes.
It was McPhee’s sack of Andy Dalton on fourth down against the Cincinnati Bengals that sealed a November win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
According to Pro Football Focus, McPhee graded out as the highest-percentage pass rusher in the league as he generated either a pressure or a sack on 9.2 percent of his snaps.
"Just a guy with a high motor, never stops going," McPhee said. "Just keep going straight, try to get to the ball basically."
To reprise relentless pass rushing form, McPhee will first have to regain his health.
The 6-foot-3, 280-pound native of Pahokee, Fla., was sidelined for the majority of the Ravens’ organized team activities and their full-team minicamp after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
He’s been steadily rehabilitating from the injury, which he doesn’t expect to affect his availability for training camp. However, the setback cost him valuable time on the field this spring.
McPhee said he fully expects to be ready in time for training camp later this month at team headquarters.
"It’s kind of tough," McPhee said. "At the same time, I’ll bounce back. It’s minor, real minor. It is what it is."
McPhee led all Ravens’ rookies with 23 tackles, also knocking down two passes, forcing a fumble and recovering another.
He produced three sacks and 10 quarterback pressures between the 10th and 13th weeks of the season before fading a bit in the playoffs as he saw limited action in two playoff games.
He registered no sacks and just three tackles in the final four games of the season, posting no sacks in the postseason.
Perhaps it was the dreaded rookie wall that wore McPhee down at the end of last season, something he’s looking to reverse this year.
"Just go out there and continue what I finished last year," McPhee said. "Go out there and play with great effort, make plays, make more plays. I’m working on everything about my game."