Pernell McPhee has never operated in the spotlight on the Ravens defense, but the fourth-year outside linebacker has carved out an effective place in the rotation by both feeding on those who hog the attention, and at times, taking it away from them.
With the Ravens thin on the defensive line and with stars Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil no longer every-down rushers, McPhee has seen time at both outside linebacker positions, defensive end, and nose tackle. He's not being shoehorned into the defense out of necessity, though. He's earned more playing time, his coaches said.
"I think you can put Pernell anywhere and he's going to get pressure," coach John Harbaugh said. "But we have two pretty good guys coming off the edge, so you want Pernell on the field."
McPhee has played 130 of the Ravens' 255 defensive snaps through four games, and despite having just three tackles and no sacks, he is responsible for a team-high nine quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. That ranks fifth in the league among 3-4 outside linebackers, according to the website's statistics.
Those hurries don't all come from a traditional outside linebacker position. McPhee has lined up all over the defense to take advantage of the attention that Suggs, Dumervil, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata draw.
"It takes a lot [of attention] away from me," McPhee said. "Eyes have to be on them, so it gives me an advantage to line up places and line up one on one, do pick moves, stuff like that."
At the same time, those players prevent McPhee from maybe having a statistical breakout.
"It's kind of hard," he said. "All of us pass rush like we're crazy, but when I get there, I get there a second too late because [Dumervil] or [Suggs] are there, Haloti's there. It's kind of hard, but it's also a blessing too, because I get noticed, I get seen."
McPhee can line up anywhere because of both his ability and his intelligence.
"We're blessed with a bunch of intelligent football players — he being one of them — and so you can do some things with guys when they know how to play football," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "They don't memorize what you tell them to do. They understand what you're trying to do."
In one three-play stretch in the third quarter last week against the Carolina Panthers, McPhee showed the kind of burst, versatility, and power that made Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano dust off one of his favorite phrases and christen McPhee "a rolling ball of butcher knives." (Pagano was the Ravens defensive coordinator when the team drafted McPhee in 2011 despite knee concerns that dropped him to the fifth round.)
On second-and-10 at the Ravens' 30, McPhee lined up on the right end and pushed Panthers tight end Ed Dickson straight into the backfield, forcing quarterback Cam Newton to step up, abandon the pass and scramble for seven yards.
McPhee again lined up on the right on third-and-3, made a quick inside move and beat left tackle Byron Bell to force a quick throw to receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Newton completed the first down, but McPhee hit his former Southeastern Conference rival and left Newton wincing.
McPhee put his hand on the ground on the left end on the ensuing play and brought down running back Darrin Reeves at the line of scrimmage.
Those three plays, in which he directly influenced each one and had only a half tackle to show for it, embody his season. He's filled up the stat sheet before — as a rookie in 2011, he had six sacks, and he has 9.5 on his career. Even so, he hopes for more.
"He's very productive," outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. "I know with Pernell, he wants to see that production turn into sacks. You see a lot of times, Pernell is the one causing all the pressure up the middle and the outside guys ... might get all the accolades, but Pernell is the one who is wreaking havoc, him and Haloti in the middle
McPhee pledged double-digit sacks before the season, and he scoffed when asked whether he was at least playing on that level, even if the stats didn't bear it out.
"Zero sacks? You've got the answer to that question," McPhee said. "If you watch the film, you'll see me in the backfield a whole lot, more than you might think looking at the stat sheet."
He's being disruptive, but fans and general managers — two important constituencies — don't see disruptive sometimes.
"The coaches might see that, but people want them stats, so I've got to get better at finishing plays," he said.
McPhee is right that coaches notice, which is why his own ask him to play so many roles on defense. And Pagano is going to "make sure our guys are aware of where he's at at all times" Sunday.
"If they're not, that's disrespectful to Pernell," Upshaw said. "If teams watch film and study like we do, they'll see number 90 in the middle destroying everything, getting pressure, setting the edge on the run, making tackles on the run. That would be disrespectful."