BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Pernell McPhee can do a lot for a defense, hence the five-year, $39 million contract Chicago offered this off-season to lure him away from the Ravens. He can rush the passer. He can defend the run. He can line up at several different spots, either off the edge or along the line in a 3–4 scheme. He can drop in coverage.
Wait ... can he drop in coverage?
The 280-pound McPhee played defensive end from his one season of high school ball through the 2012 season. Only in '13 did the Ravens shift him to outside linebacker, but while producing a career-high 7.5 sacks last season, McPhee often shifted back inside, ceding outside linebacker duties to starters Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Of the 616 snaps he played spanning the regular season and playoffs, McPhee was the primary defender on a pass just twice, per Pro Football Focus. That doubled his total from 2013.
New Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio plans to ask more of McPhee in coverage, if OTAs and early camp workouts are any indication. And there's no telling how long it will take McPhee to feel totally comfortable with that aspect of his game.
“It's different,” McPhee said Wednesday, following the Bears' sixth of 13 training camp practices. “Sometimes you have to guard the back or play zone coverage, sometimes you've got to know when to be outside. ...
“That's the toughest. Just opening up your hips. When you're rushing the first mentality is to get off the ball. Now you've got to drop. It's fun, though. It's fun.”
McPhee still should have ample opportunity to get after the quarterback, but the Bears are counting on him to be less of a situational threat, as he was in Baltimore, and more of an every-down leader. Fangio is one of the NFL's best at keeping offenses guessing by varying formations (the 49ers used both three- and four-man fronts) and points of attack.
“He's has done a good job of mixing it up,” quarterback Jay Cutler said of Fangio's scheme. “He's not afraid to drop eight or to bring eight. He throws a lot of different things at you—three-down, four-down, nickel, dime. He's got an extensive package, so it makes you think.”
The Bears were in dire need of creativity following last season's defensive debacle—they finished 31st in points allowed and 30th in yards. In two losses to the Packers, Chicago coughed up 97 points, while the Patriots and Cowboys hung a combined 92 points on the scoreboard at the expense of ex-coordinator Mel Tucker's listless unit.
The arrivals of both Fangio and McPhee point toward brighter days ahead.
McPhee entered free agency as one of the most highly coveted defenders on the market after his breakthrough 2014 performance. Chicago signed him to be the focal point of its revamped defense.
“He's a big, powerful man,” said coach John Fox of McPhee during a press conference earlier this week. “He's a hard guy to block. A lot of times he's over a tight end, that's a good matchup for us. There's a lot of ways to rush the passer, it's not just all speed. He has a good combination of speed and quickness, short radius as well as power.”
Earlier this off-season, SI's Doug Farrar tabbed McPhee as a model of the hidden talents of the NFL's best multi-gap pass rushers, examining how effective he collapses the pocket from a variety of positions. Fangio won't stifle that versatility just to have another body in the flat.
However, McPhee will have to provide support at times against running backs and tight ends, especially when 33-year-old Jared Allen is lined up on the opposite edge. Allen has also been working on his all-around game since Fangio's arrival, but he has built a career on playing with his hand in the dirt.
Because of his comfort level all over the front seven, McPhee does not need to be pigeonholed. The mystery now is just how much he can take on.
“I'm doing more dropping than I did [in Baltimore],” McPhee said. “I think it makes us better because we're not a one-dimensional team—like guys would know, ‘OK, he's the dropper, he's not.’ Now it's like they don't know where we're going to come from, how we're going to come.”
Make no mistake: Coverage responsibility is a substantial addition to the plates of McPhee, Allen and any of the Bears' other edge players relatively inexperienced in that area.
Every year, a handful of productive college pass-rushers are bumped to outside linebacker at pre-draft events like the Senior Bowl and asked to improve their coverage skills on the fly. Almost all of them struggle initially, and some need extended time in the NFL before turning the corner.
McPhee essentially finds himself in the same situation. Moving away from the line on a pass play is unnatural, working against the instincts he has built up over several seasons. Doing so while tracking quick, shifty NFL running backs makes the learning curve even steeper. (Just for kicks, here's McPhee on covering Matt Forte: “S---, he's quicker than what a lot of people think he is. He's big but he's quicker. It's a good look for me, I'm going to face different backs throughout the year.”)
Eventually, the Bears' defense will be markedly better—and it looked sharp against a clunky Chicago offense during Wednesday's workout. Right now, everyone is still learning, and McPhee's education is under more scrutiny than his teammates'.
“You've got to train your mind to get used to it,” McPhee said. “Practice, you've got to treat it like a game.”