Whitney Mercilus has evolved. The 2012 first round pick has gone from sitting and watching Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin, to an effective run stopper and ineffective pass rusher, to an edge-setting monster who couldn't fluster a quarterback unless someone else did the dirty work for him, to a complete player that controls the edge and disrupts the pass game.
For the last three years, Mercilus has been, at a minimum, a good run stopper. The tackling numbers have stayed around the mid-30s. The film has consistently shown a player with great upper body strength who holds his own against offensive tackles and dominates tight ends in the run game. The ability to actually rush the passer is what turned Mercilus from the type of edge-setter the NFL is littered with to a special player that's hard to find.
Via Pro Football Focus
Throughout his career, Mercilus has been able to pick up sacks, the single number everyone looks at to decide if a pass rusher is good or not. Sack totals, like touchdowns, are the culmination of good play. But opportunity, opponent and scheme can skew these numbers. In 2013, only three of Mercilus' seven sacks were the result of him beating a block. He feasted and accrued sacks from the trash created by his teammates. In fact, last season, two of his twelve came on failed plays, and nine of his twelve were against Zach Mettenberger, a pocket sloth who holds onto the football for too long, oor the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team known for its crude offensive line play.
Sacks are important. However, what makes a pass rusher good is the ability to consistently disrupt plays, getaround blocks, and hurry the quarterback. Mercilus did this in 2015. His hurries jumped from 25 to 42. He also picked up nine more hurries than his previous career high of 33. He's turned from a player who makes occasional plays in advantageous situations to a man who consistently beats blocks and makes quarterbacks scamper. Now, he just makes things f*#^ing happen.
His upper body strength and low pad level are the keys to his game. Over the last three years, Mercilus has been one of the better edge defenders in the NFL because of these two qualities.
Here, back in 2014, the Dallas Cowboys are running an inside zone play. Mercilus is matched up one-on-one against the tight end. He reads the play and slides over to take the tight end on head up. The blocker gets his hands inside and is lower than Mercilus. Despite this, Mercilus is able to extend the tight end and turn him back inside because of his dominant upper body strength. From there, he watches the back, escapes to the "C" gap, and forces Randle back inside.
This type of run stop was the norm for Mercilus in 2014. He would hold down the "C" gap and either chase and make the tackle, or flip the play back inside. He achieved his goals with a combination of upper body strength and pad level.
In 2015, Mercilus became a great run defender. There was an extra layer of viciousness when he played the run last season. He looked stronger, he attacked more than read, and as a result, he made more plays like this. Plays that are the difference between good and great.
In Week Eight against the Titans, Whitney hits Anthony Fasano underneath the chin and pops each of the buckles on his flaming thumbtack laden helmet. Afterwards, he drives the tight end back and slips off inside to tackle Antonio Andrews for a two yard loss.
Tennessee is running an outside zone play to the right. Mercilus is lined up as "9" playing the "C" gap. Fasano is blocking Mercilus by himself.
There's no hesitation here. Mercilus sees the outside zone step and thrashes downhill without thinking.
He takes three steps, each one towards the line of scrimmage. Fasano, on the other hand, is hesitant. He's trying not to whiff completely and just wants to make contact.
Now this is a punch. Mercilus sinks his hips and detonates himself into Fasano's chest. All the tight end can do is hold on, wrap his arms outside, and clinch.
Rther than just drive the tight end into the end zone to show off some faux machismo, Mercilus is an actual football player. He drives the blocker two steps back. Then he extends, sits, and looks for the ball carrier.
He tosses Fasano outside and slides inside for the tackle.
This is the difference between good and great. Good forces the play back inside for a two yard tackle. Great is making the tight end wish he took up a different profession and tackling the back for a two yard loss. Between 2014 and 2015, Mercilus reacted to plays quicker. He became a stronger and nastier version of his former self.
Mercilus is stellar at coming off the ball low, making contact first, punching the chest, extending, and reacting to the ball. His run game ability has allowed him to be a fine starter even without being able to continually disrupt the pass game. That's changed. His hurries increased from 25 to 42 from 2014 to 2015, and his Pro Football Focus pass rush rating has gone from -2.6 to +22.3. He's a real pass rusher now.
Things were different back in 2013 and 2014. Mercilus would incessantly use an outside pass rush move whether it worked or not.. If Mercilus played Tony Hawk Pro Skater, he would only press left+square to kick flip and sit, mouth agape, face filled with anguish, as the time on his two minute run clicked closer and closer to zero, and he, nowhere near his goal, was forced to kick flip in a warehouse forever with Chad Muska. This over-reliance on the same move made Mercilus predictable. Tackles would kick slide out and snag his chest. Prior to 2015, Mercilus was simply ineffective.
Mercilius doesn't have the OMG burst and straight line speed that Von Miller or Khalil Mack have. He can't simply run around an offensive tackle. Because of this, the majority of his pass rushes ended with him aiming at the outside shoulder and landing into the tackle's chest.
This play encapsulates Mercilus' 2014 season. Luke Joeckel, the same left tackle Mercilus picked up three sacks against in Week 17 last year, and Mercilus converge at the point of attack. Mercilus comes into Joeckel's chest. He tries to bend around the edge and rip off the block. But Joeckel has him in his grasp and Blake Bortles gets the ball away.
The attack of the outside shoulder hasn't gone away. It's still the base of Mercilus' pass rush. It's simply that Mercilus is a better athlete in 2015 and gets to the shoulder more often. He creates pressure by combining his outside rush with great hands and a sweet rip that pulls the tackle down. The dramatic change is Mercilus uses it 65% of the time instead of 95% of the time.
He now mixes up his pass rush moves and has refined his technique. Mercilus more regularly uses bullrushes, inside out fakes, and spins that keep the tackle guessing. No longer are these moves a defibrillator that wakes you up from banal and uninspired play. These moves are used often with strategy and success. As a result, tackles can't kick-slide back and expect the same thing. They actually have to react to what Mercilus does instead of playing like a sleeping shark. This is why Mercilus' pass rushing has morphed into something more than monotonous splaying.
The key to Mercilus' other moves is that they counter his outside move. Mercilus doesn't just go into rushes with a set plan and do what's comfortable. He can react to the blocker and pick the right weapon among his arsenal.
When his outside rush is working, tackles hurry to get outside. Consequently, their base narrows, they play high, and their belly is open. Whitney has lower body strength and the hip bend to go through and around tackles. Here, Mercilus generates pressure with his bullrush against Eric Winston on Monday Night Football.
Whitney is on the right side of the line playing the "9" technique. He's rushing from a very wide position.
Mercilus knows the distance advantage he has. He thinks he can beat Winston around the edge because of his width. Winston helps him by looking at the "B" gap instead of focusing on his man. Winston offers a punch to the "B" gap because of some guy named J.J. Watt. This opens up Mercilus' rush to even more possibilities.
Winston has to hurry his set to get back in time. Because of this, he's high, his base is narrow, and his head is over his feet. There's no strength in his form.
When Winston turns his shoulders and swings, the gate opens and it closes off the outside some. Mercilus counters by taking the shorter path through him.
Before he makes contact, Mercilus drops just like he does when he punches in the run game, bringing his facemask and hands into Winston's chest. Unlike the Dallas play, he's lower and driving. Winston is high and catching with his feet tangled up.
Mercilus' punch lifts Winston out of his socks. He continues driving him backwards until Winston tumbles over. Andy Dalton hurries and dumps the pass off for a five yard completion.
In 2014, Mercilus would have ripped around the outside shoulder. He would have gone around the block and ended up too far up the field. In that scenario, Dalton gets the ball away safely and probably throws it father down field. In 2015, Mercilus demolishes the tackle and forces Dalton to flip the ball out early in a game where he had eight hurries.
When offensive linemen see the bullrush coming, they will hunker down and drop their butt to create leverage. By doing this, they can swallow the force generated by someone running full speed at them until momentum comes to a halt. Like the bullrush that counters his outside rush, this inside out juke counters the bull rush.
The Texans are in their nickel package with their four best pass rushers and Eddie Pleasant in the box helping in coverage. Mercilus is on the left side of the formation matched up against the recently retired, and possible Hall of Famer, D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
Mercilus plants and comes barreling inside. This screws with Ferguson's pass set. He's forced to bring his left foot inside rather than outside.
Whitney's second step is placed directly at Ferguson's chest.
Ferguson expects the bull rush. He makes his punch. Mercilus bounds off his inside foot and leaps outside.
He isn't able to get around the block immediately, though. Ferguson is skilled. Most tackles would whiff and watch. The tackle redirects his punch into Mercilus' chest. Yet Whitney still gained the advantage here. His head is on the outside shoulder, not the chest.
This is the real impressive stuff. Mercilus takes one arm and stems the goliath. The stem is great at creating separation when the player has the strength to do it because humans can reach farther with one hand than two.
With the separation, Mercilus dips, bends the knees and waist, and runs around the block. He has great knee bend and hip flexibility. This allows him to create and run with such low leverage.
He plants and flattens to stay on a path to the quarterback.
Ryan Fitzpatrick forces a throw to the deep center part of the field that leads to an incompletion.
Mercilus now has a multitude of options to rush the passer: rips, great hands that bat punches away, bullrushes, inside out moves, outside fakes back to the bull rush, and spins are all used. They aren't aberrations anymore. They are executed perfectly and used at opportune times.
The other thing Mercilus is great at is stunting, especially on T-E stunts where the defensive tackle is the hammer drawing two blockers for him to loop around. He's stellar at planting and bursting tight around the tackle's magnetism right through an open hole or into an unsuspecting blocker.
On this play, Jared Crick stunts to the right and into the tackle. The Bengals are blocking man-on-man on this side. The guard has Crick. The tackle has Mercilus. Mercilus fakes the outside rush, plants, flicks on the warp speed and obliterates the guard's inside shoulder. He bounces off, creates separation and heads through the "B" gap. Afterwards, Mercilus gives pursuit and chases Dalton out of the pocket.
Mercilus ability to play off stunts is an underrated aspect of Houston's pass rush. The Texans' entire front seven, aside from Vince Wilfork, can take on double teams and open up rushes for everyone else. Romeo Crennel has a bin full of Legos to play around with. He can use any of his defenders to mash into the line and loop Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney, Brian Cushing or Watt with. It's a way for Houston to manufacture a pass rush without having to blitz. Mercilus' ability to hit the turbo and peel around is one example of many why the Texans' pass rush flourished in 2015.
Everything we've looked at from 2015 has been beautiful. Yet the best pass rush move Whitney Mercilus had last season was this spin against the Patriots. Here he's using it as a primary pass rush move instead of a secondary move once his first move is stopped
Houston is dropping the linebackers showing "B" gap pressure. Mercilus is rushing the right "A" gap against the center. At the snap, he attacks this gap, then whirls around to the other "A" gap. He's a death-rolling crocodile. The center misses his punch and can't grasp onto anything. Mercilus has a free path to the quarterback and brings down Tom Brady.
For Mercilus to continue to improve, more plays like this need to happen for two reasons. The first is that a lot of his pass rushes take time. Mercilus doesn't beat linemen off the block immediately; he doesn't have the speed to quickly close the gap or simply run past blockers. Quick rushes off the ball like this where he instantly beats the blocker are an aspect of his game that he's missing.
The second is that Mercilus has trouble against quick pass sets. Instead of kick-sliding back and allowing the defender to spin his tires to full speed, the tackle will slide lateral and get his hands on the defender quickly. The league is moving more towards pass sets like this because the gap in quickness between tackles and edge rushers is starting to narrow, now that players like Tyron Smith are being conceived in test tubes. When this strategy is used, Mercilus tries to fight with his hands or spin back inside. It usually ends with him snagged. If he can develop a better spin move or even a swim off the snap, it will negate these quick sets. This will then lead to more traditional pass sets and open up the rest of his skill tree.
Whatever Mike Vrabel has done with Whitney Mercilus has worked. He trusts himself and uses other moves more often. He will bullrush when the tackle begins to over-set, and he uses his leverage to pop them in the chin. He will fake inside, then pounce outside and rip around the tackle's shoulder. He will spin back inside and create pressure once his first move has been stopped. No longer does Whitney Mercilus just mash the A button. He's learned how to use the other buttons on the controller.
Whitney Mercilus made a leap last year. He's a great run defender and a legitimate pass rusher now that he's learned how to use a variety of moves successfully. If he can continue to improve on these pass rush moves, he could become a fifteen sack player in this defense filled with abundant opportunities. No longer is Whitney Mercilus a mediocre football player with a perfect name. He's a very good player worthy of his name.
If you want more information on Whitney Mercilus, listen to my appearance on "The Weekly Brew" in the embedded player below. In it ,I discussed Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney, and Bill O'Brien. My part starts at 32:50 if you don't want to listen to John McClain.