Durkin's Free Agent Spotlight: OLB Pernell McPhee
By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) In a division that features reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, the need to pressure the quarterback is at a premium. Even though the Bears spent nearly $35 million last offseason to bolster their pass rush, that didn't deter them from procuring another pass rusher as free agency gets underway -- Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who reportedly has agreed to a five-year deal worth $40 million, with $16 million guaranteed. It can become official later this afternoon.
Bears coach John Fox confirmed that the Bears would be a 3-4 on base downs (against regular personnel groupings) and utilize 3-4 terminology. But Fox also emphasized that designating what scheme you are is more of a focus for fans or media than it is for teams and coaches.
"Sometimes a lot is made – particularly on the outside – about the 3-4 and a 4-3," Fox said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "Generally, the spacings are very similar. Like all coaching of any defense, it's really putting your players in the best position to have success."
More often than not, teams tend to be multiple with their looks and run hybrid fronts, which is what Fox envisions his defense being in Chicago.
"Most people that even call themselves a 4-3 — we were one in Denver – they're a hybrid of the 3-4," Fox added. "When I started in this league in Pittsburgh, we were a 3-4 defense. The primary advantage of the 3-4 is you're not locked in to which outside guy is rushing. I think that's a tremendous advantage in today's game."
Creating pre-snap deception about which rushers you're going to send tends to lead to post-snap disruptions. By varying alignments and personnel groupings on defense, it's easier to scramble an offense's protection count.
In order to successfully execute such a scheme, versatile pieces are needed along the defensive front. The Bears acquired exactly that in McPhee.
When speaking at the NFL Combine, general manager Ryan Pace defined the criteria he uses when looking for an outside linebacker.
"Pass rush is the first thing that comes to mind," Pace said. "Edge speed. The ability to hit the quarterback. And then the ability to set the edge and get off a block.
"But pass rush is the No. 1 priority."
McPhee's tape shows all those traits, so let's step inside the film room to take a closer look at some of the qualities and traits of the Bears' newest pass rusher.
McPhee was used primarily as a pass rush specialist and deployed from a variety of techniques and alignments by Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Certainly, his ability to transcend scheme was attractive to new Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and Fox. But it's one thing to be able to fill different roles; it's another thing entirely to excel in all of them, which McPhee did.
For example, the cutups below came from one single drive last season against the Carolina Panthers.
McPhee used both one- and two-gap principles. He displays quick feet and change of direction to shoot a gap, but he also was stout at the point of attack to anchor against the run when two-gapping.
McPhee plays with a low pad-level when deployed inside from a three-point stance. When stalled on his interior pass rushes, he keeps his eyes in the backfield and get his arms up to disrupt passing lanes.
At times he overwhelmed centers and guards by setting them up with his feet to get them lunging and out over their toes, only to cross their face with a quick arm-over/swim move to press the pocket from the inside. He is able to "get skinny" inside by narrowing his shoulders to give blockers a smaller striking surface.
Pees allowed McPhee to freelance within the scheme and choose his rushing lane. He looks most comfortable when rushing from a two-point stance, where he can win both with his footwork and plant, redirect and burst back across a blocker's face, as well as convert speed-to-power on a bull rush.
McPhee pass rushes with a purpose and a plan. He's an exceptional hand-fighter who shows a variety of moves -- slap and go, chop/dip/rip and an aggressive arm-over/swim move.
On this interior rush below, McPhee knocks Panthers center Ryan Kalil off his anchor with a slap, then wins the A-gap inside. He forces the running back to step up in protection to force a double team and speed up Cam Newton's decision-making, forcing an incomplete pass.
The next rush showcases McPhee's ability to tie his footwork and hands together. In this rush, he sets up left tackle Byron Bell with an outside step to get him leaning, then quickly changes course inside to cut down his path to Newton.
One area McPhee can learn to learn to better use his hands is to protect his legs from low blocks in the run game. He can take himself out of plays by not breaking down at the point of attack and getting chopped.
Explosiveness/burst to close
McPhee's an explosive athlete who quickly gets to full speed. Once he's in the backfield, he zeros in on his target and shows burst to close and finish the play. He's relentless in his rushes and consistently gets backfield penetration to press the pocket off the edge or collapse it from the inside.
Here's a rush against the Colts where McPhee again wins the A-gap inside, creating a short path to Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. McPhee gets to Luck before he can evade laterally in the pocket to bring him down for a sack.
McPhee does come with question marks. He was part of a defensive line rotation in Baltimore, playing less than 50 percent of the team's total snaps. However, with Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs on the roster, it's easy to understand why McPhee wasn't on the field more.
However, when McPhee was given opportunities, he was highly productive and disruptive. There's a parallel between McPhee and Willie Young, whom the Bears signed last year. Young had been part of a rotation with the Lions but earned more snaps and became the Bears' most disruptive pass rusher in 2014, netting a career-high 10 sacks.
Given McPhee's usage as a pass rush specialist, opponents began to counter him by using his aggressiveness against him by running screens. Thus, his block recognition must improve. He has to read the setup of the blocker lined up in front of him and read his keys -- helmet level and their footwork. When he's given a free release, McPhee must learn to use his change-of-direction talents to follow the blocker to the play.
Fair or not, McPhee becomes the first embodiment of the new era at Halas Hall. He's the first free agent acquisition by general manager Ryan Pace. Given the fact that the Bears were armed with ample cap space to make nearly any move on the open market, he's the prototype of what Fox and Fangio are seeking.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.
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