Everything needed to go right for the Baltimore Ravens to get into the playoffs on Sunday, and it did.
That was not just a product of playing a depleted Cleveland Browns team at home, but rather a strong performance by the entire team, particularly the defense, which held rookie quarterback Connor Shaw to just 177 yards and zero touchdowns on 28 attempts.
Facing an underrated Cleveland offensive line, Baltimore’s front seven was (as usual) simply too much for the opposition and the secondary stepped up the play when the team needed it most.
Baltimore’s potent pass rush notched four sacks, with two credited to outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, whose standout game on Sunday was just one of many in a year of success for the fourth-year defender.
Entering a contract year and showing plenty of flashes during his first three NFL seasons, it would not have been a surprise to see McPhee take the next step in 2014, and he did just that.
McPhee finished his 2014 regular season with career highs in sacks (7.5) and passes defended (four). One of Baltimore’s top defenders all season, McPhee’s ability to rush the passer from the outside and from the interior makes him a swiss army knife for defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
In his second full season as an outside linebacker, McPhee has made the coaching staff look like collective geniuses with his play as a standup player, given his previous successes as a defensive lineman.
Sunday’s performance was a culmination of a 2014 season in which McPhee has emerged as a familiar name across the league. Let’s take a look at how McPhee anchored the Baltimore defense against Cleveland.
While he is an outside linebacker by name, Pees is not shy to use McPhee in more than just traditional 3-4 outside linebacker setups.
Here, McPhee offers a rush as a standup linebacker in the middle.
McPhee executes the initial interior rush, but the play design is a screen to the right, which he quickly diagnoses.
As Shaw is releasing the football, McPhee has already reacted by abandoning the rush.
Even though he has almost too much ground to cover in order to make a play on the receiver, McPhee pursues the target on the outside.
He chases down the receiver by taking the right angle and capitalizing on a cutback toward the inside by the ball carrier.
Pass rush is the primary job for outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense, but when defenders offer plays such as this to their repertoire, it takes them to another level.
McPhee’s specialty, however, remains his rush ability. His tenacity when rushing the passer has complemented Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs well, and he often is able to make plays without any extra help.
On this sack, McPhee begins lined up well outside the left tackle.
With such a wide angle to start off, the most realistic option for McPhee is to power his way through the inside shoulder of the tackle en route to the quarterback.
McPhee employs that method, avoiding the speed rush around the outside and opting to engage with the left tackle.
McPhee’s strength allows him to disengage from the blocker by dipping his right shoulder and sliding underneath toward the inside.
His strength allows him to slip through and bring down Shaw for a sack.
There is no one trait that makes McPhee a talented linebacker; his diverse set of traits is what leads to his success.
If he needs to use his speed to make a play, he can do just that, as shown in the first play. However he can also go all power to make a play, as in his sack play above.
Play recognition and closing speed also make McPhee an imposing edge rusher, as seen in his second sack against Cleveland.
Here, he lines up in more of a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker position.
The first order of business for McPhee is to recognize the read option by Shaw and running back Terrance West.
McPhee has plenty of free space early in the play which allows him to sit back and diagnose Shaw’s intentions with the football.
Shaw keeps the football on the play, which initiates McPhee’s pursuit of the quarterback.
His path is not easy, however, as tight end Jordan Cameron and West are in to pass protect, with Cameron being McPhee’s first obstacle.
As an interior rusher pressures Shaw, the quarterback is forced to move in the pocket and away from McPhee.
At the same time, McPhee sheds off an admirable blocking attempt by Cameron.
McPhee just has West to avoid, and the running back’s weak block effort allows the linebacker to finally gain some free space to pursue Shaw, who is still escaping to the left.
The closing speed by McPhee allows him to close in for the sack before Shaw can escape the pocket.
Having McPhee’s diverse skill set is sort of a luxury for the Baltimore defense. Dumervil and Suggs are the starters and primary outside linebackers, but McPhee plays just as well as his counterparts on many occasions.
As a result of a numbers game, McPhee is not a “starter” by name, but he certainly provides the value of one.
Set to become an unrestricted free agent and cash in at the end of the season, re-signing McPhee should be on Baltimore’s to-do list for the offseason.
The only problem for the Ravens is pass rushers come at a premium in today’s NFL, and a team with loads of cap space may not shy away from offering McPhee a hefty payday.
Regardless of where he plays next season, McPhee has proved to be another late-round gem found by the Ravens front office. A former fifth-round pick, McPhee has well outplayed his draft status during his time in Baltimore.