As is the case again this offseason after the Baltimore Ravens used three draft picks on the front seven, there is a logjam at several positions along the defensive front.
Last season, free agent additions Chris Canty and Marcus Spears created a surplus of defensive ends, and in order to compensate, the coaching staff took one of the team’s more underrated defensive linemen – Pernell McPhee – and experimented with him at outside linebacker.
A defensive end by nature, moving McPhee to outside linebacker never became a complete process, as 104 of his 313 defensive snaps in 2013 came from the outside linebacker position, and 118 combined 4-3 and 3-4 defensive end snaps (Stat courtesy of @PFF_Gordon).
The experiment led to mixed results, and it solidified the belief that McPhee is simply a very good defensive end, and that’s where he deserves to be playing if he’s going to be a long-term fixture in Baltimore.
Entering the final year of his rookie contract, the former fifth-round pick has one more year to prove his worth to Baltimore’s defense, and perhaps more snaps at defensive end will do the trick.
He has flown under the radar despite three quality years with the team, and if he can make the next step and stand out in 2014 on a crowded Ravens front, he may be the next Ravens late-round draft pick to cash in with another NFL team.
Let’s take a look at McPhee’s body of work, and what makes him a valuable asset to Baltimore’s defense.
Where McPhee’s impact has been felt most so far in his Baltimore career has been as a pass rusher. While his opportunities have been sparse (career high for snaps in a season is 543 in 2012), McPhee is one of the team’s most talented interior rushers, with perhaps the most active hands on the team.
While at outside linebacker in 2013, McPhee’s impact was neutralized. What he does best is line up at defensive end, shoot a gap and let his hands and balance make the difference en route to the quarterback.
When defensive coordinator Dean Pees allowed McPhee to play his natural position last season, the impact was felt.
Lined up at defensive end against the Houston Texans, McPhee’s ability to take on multiple blockers, occupy a gap, and then ultimately shoot said gap was on display.
Off the snap, the right guard gets an initial punch on McPhee, but the defender is able to continue his interior pursuit.
McPhee is forced to work his way through the center and guard as the quarterback steps up in the pocket, and McPhee’s hands come into play, giving the center a nice punch and swipe to the side.
By the time quarterback Matt Schaub steps up in the pocket, McPhee is among one of the Ravens defenders to break free and get in on a sack.
Later in the season against the Cincinnati Bengals, McPhee showed the strength to take on a guard and tackle, this time attacking the B gap.
McPhee is punched off the snap by the right guard, sending him into right tackle Andre Smith.
Smith gets a hold of McPhee, but the defender still has the inside track to the quarterback, and while Smith has a hand on McPhee, the hand usage from #90 allows him to prevent Smith from fully grabbing on.
This allows McPhee to keep his path to quarterback Andy Dalton, and as Smith rides McPhee’s side to the quarterback, McPhee’s balance gives him the advantage, preventing Smith from redirecting the defender, ultimately giving the Raven a clear shot at Dalton.
As an outside linebacker, using the pass rush moves McPhee excels at is hard. McPhee isn’t a speed player, taking that aspect out of the mix, and while hand usage can be implemented from the outside, McPhee works better in confined spaces, as his ability to disrupt while being tended to by multiple linemen is a desirable asset.
It’s a good sign that the coaching staff feels that McPhee is athletic and versatile enough to play linebacker and defensive end, but versatility isn’t always a good thing.
Just because he can play outside linebacker doesn’t mean that he should, as it takes away his ability to use the pass rush and gap-occupying techniques that make him valuable inside.
But don’t get too worried if you prefer McPhee as a defensive lineman instead of outside linebacker.
After all, he did play nose tackle on a play against the Miami Dolphins last season.
Overall, the experiment with McPhee last season reassured his value as an interior rusher. If an outside linebacker such as second-year player John Simon is ready to step up and take more snaps on defense in 2014, it would benefit Baltimore’s pass rush to use McPhee more with his hand down as an interior rusher.
He’s a (very good) defensive lineman by nature, and while his snaps have been somewhat limited during his time in Baltimore, he’s one of the best-kept secrets on defense.
If he can build on his first three successful seasons, McPhee will be in for a nice payday next offseason.
McPhee may often go unnoticed in games, but when he’s on the field, he makes Baltimore’s defensive front better, particularly when playing defensive end.