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Game planning: How the Vikings can handle Bears LB Pernell McPhee

By Arif Hasan

mcphee-technique

Matthew Coller highlighted the problems of dealing with Pernell McPhee, former Raven and current Bears linebacker who could present some serious problems for the Vikings.

Chicago has been missing McPhee all season and despite that, their best unit has to be their pass-rush. Last year, Pernell McPhee ranked second in the NFL in pressures produced (using STATS, Inc. data) and third after adjusting for the fact that he played some weak offensive lines. PFF data from last year agrees, and he led all edge defenders in pressure rate as well.

McPhee is also a candidate for positive regression; his high pressure rate didn’t translate into many sacks and more often than not those seasons are followed by an increase in sacks. Many times (like for Paul Kruger and Brian Robison) there are players who are not good finishers and have high pressure rates with consistently low sack totals, but generally speaking, players who have a disproportionate amount of hurries and sacks will see that equalize.

McPhee’s worst game last year is relatively predictable—Chicago’s matchup against Oakland and their combination of talented offensive line and scheme that neutralize pressure. McPhee had a pressure rate of over 20 percent in the vast majority of his matchups (a stunning amount), but in this game could only grab a pressure rate of four percent.

How did they do it, and can the Vikings do the same thing?

It’s a tough plan to replicate—McPhee wins with technique as well as power, and is comfortable attacking either side of the line. While he’s not the speed rusher that Brandon Graham is, he could cause issues because of his technical skill for both Clemmings and Sirles.

Oakland simply has more skill along their offensive line and in that game had Donald Penn and Austin Howard—a tackle who has some big weaknesses, but whose strengths match up well with McPhee.

mcphee-power-pass-rush

aThat’s one element that’s not replicable, but there is something they can do—dampen his significance by reducing drop depth.

It’s a familiar refrain for Vikings fans: stop exposing the quarterback to hits and sacks by forcing him to stand in the pocket by play design. Screens, slants and quick outs will eliminate McPhee on most of those plays, even if he wins all of those reps, which is something that happened in Week 5 before the bye.

The offensive line did an extremely poor job winning their snaps, but it didn’t matter because of how quickly the ball left Bradford’s hands.

In the Raiders game last year, the Bears had to deal with a third of Carr’s targets going to running backs behind the line of scrimmage. The nine targets to running backs in that game traveled 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage in total, or a depth of target of -1.11 yards on average.

45 percent of the targets went to receivers, tight ends and backs who had an average depth of target below 4 yards from the line of scrimmage—0.47 yards behind the line of scrimmage on average.

The Bears don’t have talented tacklers at defensive back. It’s by no means the worst in the league (probably the Bengals or Steelers), but it’s an area of weakness. That’s particularly true with expected starters Bryce Callahan and Tracy Porter, who have missed 19.0 and 20.0 percent of their tackle attempts this year (per Football Outsiders premium statistics). The average for DBs this year is 16.4 percent, and the worst 25th percentile misses tackles at a rate of 23 percent.

Allowing players like Cordarrelle Patterson and Stefon Diggs to take screens forward will protect Bradford and it could wear McPhee out if those screens are thrown to his side of the field.

bears-tackling

Beyond that, a plan like Week 5’s—where Bradford had his best passer rating of the year at 123.1— will include a variety of route concepts, like sticks and slants, as well as quick outs. They should still include deep threats in their route concepts and that’s not incompatible with short dropbacks. After all, Thielen’s deep catches in the last few weeks all came on one-step drops.

The ability to attack the holes in Vic Fangio’s scheme, which are often intermediate routes near the sidelines, will be important. But the biggest threat is McPhee; exploiting the poor tackling of the Bears’ cornerbacks will protect Bradford, wear him out and still allow for route concepts further downfield when need be.

There’s a risk to this: both Eli Manning and Carson Wentz obviated the Vikings pass rush by getting rid of the ball immediately. But the Vikings have the best tackling unit of defensive backs in the league, missing only ten percent of their tackle attempts. Not only that, it was on the film for the Giants and Eagles going in as a consistent theme week to week.

The Vikings have had a varied structure over the weeks and it makes it difficult to gameplan against the offense. It’s created some problems with rhythm and contributed to the loss against the Eagles, but it benefits Minnesota for this game.

Oakland also found ways to chip McPhee with different tight ends and running backs throughout the route, and that’s something Turner should implement in the game plan as well. They’ve been doing it this year quite a bit, especially as Andre Smith went down.

mcphee-chipped

The Vikings will want to commit to running the ball as well, to prevent third-and-long and therefore obvious pass-rushing situations. They probably won’t want to run at McPhee like they might against other effective pass-rushers, however. He’s an even more talented run defender than he is a pass-rusher and that would defeat the purpose of moving the ball.

mcphee-stops-run

This method is a bit risky as the Vikings are without Jerick McKinnon and will only enter the game with one running back who has been on the team for more than two weeks. Matt Asiata’s incredible consistency will be useful, however, as the point is more to keep the offense on schedule, not generate an enormous amount of yards.

That doesn’t mean abandoning play-action, first-down passing and explosive playmaking downfield. It’s more that Minnesota should consider changing their emphasis, not eliminate plays from the playbook entirely.

The Chicago Bears don’t have a lot of great units; they have a very good linebacker corps, but have weak run defense overall. They have individually good coverage defenders in the secondary, like Adrian Amos, but generally speaking have been weak defending passes. Their offense is inconsistent and will be missing key playmakers in every position group.

That means one of the only threats they’ll be able to field is with their pass rush, who have the unique capability of causing problems in-game through pressure and possibly later in the season with repeated quarterback hits. It makes sense for Minnesota to shift their offense to deal with a returning pass-rusher who could bring new life to a beleaguered Bears defense.

The Vikings are heavily favored, but McPhee could become a problem. They should prioritize those problems to make sure Minnesota wins as they should.

Related reading:

McPhee’s return could present issues for Vikings

Related viewing: Pernell McPhee is one of 3 key players to watch Monday night. Matthew Coller and Derek Wetmore have more:

The post Game planning: How the Vikings can handle Bears LB Pernell McPhee appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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