For over a decade now the Baltimore Ravens have been known for their defense. Superstars like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs have won four Defensive Player of the Year awards between them since the Ravens’ Super Bowl season in 2000. Around those three standouts there have been plenty of players who may not have reached the same heights, but have still been amongst the best at their position at the time.
Key to the success of this defense has been the strength of their drafting, which has seen them continually add valuable pieces. Of the 11 defensive players who played the most snaps this past season in Baltimore, eight were drafted by the team.
With all that talent on the defensive side of the ball, it’s easy for a player to fly under the radar. Pernell McPhee (+19.0) did just that in his rookie season, quietly putting himself forward as the team’s most productive pass rusher on limited snaps.
With a full offseason under his belt, and thanks to free agent departures along the defensive line, this Secret Superstar should find himself with even more opportunities to make himself known in 2012.
A fifth-round draft pick out of Mississippi State in 2011, McPhee was seeing playing time straight away, playing half of the team’s defensive snaps in the season-opening mauling of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He would go on to see limited action as a situational pass rusher, adding four sacks, a hit, and five pressures through his first eight games. It was in Week 10, however, that McPhee really caught our eye. Rushing the passer just 15 times against the Seattle Seahawks, he put pressure on Tarvaris Jackson five times, once every three pass-rushing snaps!
That started a four-week run where McPhee was utterly brilliant in his limited opportunities on the field, generating three sacks, four hits, and 10 pressures between Weeks 10 and 13. During that span, the lowest PFF grade he earned was his +3.3 performance against Seattle. It was his Week 11 game against the Cincinnati Bengals that really got my attention my, though. With the Bengals driving and facing third-and-17 with 40 seconds left in the game, he beat our sixth-rated left tackle, Andrew Whitworth, on consecutive plays with a pressure and then a sack to seal the win.
His production dipped after that impressive stretch, never grading out above +0.4 until another fine outing in the season finale on the road in Cincinnati where he generated three pressures on 24 rushes.
Rather frustratingly, he was only on the field for 25 snaps in the Ravens’ two playoff games, adding just a single pressure to his regular season totals. The dip in form to end the season points towards him tiring as his rookie season wore on. Nevertheless, what we saw from him in the first 13 weeks of the season gave enough reason to believe the Ravens may have found another outstanding player to plug into their defense.
While he finished the season as our sixth-ranked defensive tackle overall, you could attribute nearly all of this to his production as a pass rusher. That’s not to say McPhee was poor against the run, we just never really got the opportunity to see him in that particular role. With just 58 regular season snaps as a run defender, he never graded above +1.4 or below -1.6, but with a lack of snaps to judge him on, it’s definitely something to look for in 2012.
Against the run it’s hard to truly gauge his effectiveness until we see more, but as a pass rusher we’ve already seen plenty. Among all 4-3 DT’s who played at least 25% of their teams’ snaps, nobody had a higher pressure percentage (9.2%) than McPhee. That’s taken from our Signature Stat: Pass Rushing Productivity (which measures pressure on a per-snap basis) and in a league that puts emphasis on getting to the quarterback, nobody was more productive than him as an inside pass rusher. Can he keep up that production with an increased snap count? That’s the big question heading into this season, and it’s something that will determine just how big a star he becomes.
His rookie season was similar to that of a fellow AFC North inside pass rushing beast in Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins. Khaled Eslayed highlighted Atkins as the Bengals’ Secret Superstar last year and he duly delivered, finishing the season as our second-highest graded DT. If McPhee can get close to the production of his divisional rival, it could go a long way to helping a Ravens pass rush that has already been dealt a serious blow this offseason.
When Terrell Suggs went down, potentially for the season, at the beginning of May, we highlighted McPhee’s rookie season as a reason for optimism for Ravens fans worried about the team’s pass rush. Obviously the pressure Suggs generates from the outside isn’t something we saw from McPhee in 2011. His inside pass rushing skills, however, showed that the Ravens have other options.
It’s not just the loss of Suggs that represents an opportunity for him; Cory Redding and Brandon McKinney both bolted to join up with former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis. That should allow McPhee to earn more playing time if his production merits it and that potential bump in snaps is the opportunity he needs to showcase his talents.
We’ve highlighted him as the Ravens’ 2012 Secret Superstar because of his level of play on rationed snaps in 2011 and because of the opportunity that awaits. It’s now up to McPhee to show that he can deliver consistently with more chances and shake off the secret in Secret Superstar.