The Houston Texans have yet to embark on their highly-anticipated 2016 campaign, but they have already received their first break of the season – Bears stud linebacker Pernell McPhee, the biggest and meanest monster of the midway, will be out for at least the first six weeks of the year with a knee injury. McPhee has had a history of knee problems in the past, including playing through injuries almost all of last season en route to six sacks and a boatload of splashy plays against the run. McPhee was so dominant despite his ailments, in fact, that I decided to profile him earlier this summer in my Film Room series in anticipation of seeing him take on the Texans in Week One.
The absence of a player of McPhee’s caliber will be felt on every single down for this Bears defense. He is a tone-setter against the run in short yardage situations and a potentially devastating pass rusher against weaker offensive tackles. Most of all, he is Chicago’s greatest weapon against the Texans’ bread and butter play – the outside zone run. McPhee’s strength at the point of attack to stack and shed blockers is matched by only a select few linebackers in this league. He is capable of not only crushing the edge and forcing runners back into the teeth of his defense, but more often than not, he is also the one working off of his blocks back inside to stop ball-carriers dead in their tracks. In short, McPhee is damn near irreplaceable against the very thing that Lamar Miller was brought to Houston to do.
Once a favorite of Gary Kubiak and Arian Foster, Bill O’Brien got away from this team’s outside zone roots last season when Foster was hurt and no other backs on the roster were capable of getting to the edge consistently. When Alfred Blue lacked the speed to get to the corner, linebackers stopped cheating to the edges and just stayed in the cutback lanes waiting for Blue to eventually plod his way through. It was almost too easy to predict what would happen from game to game.
Blue could not effectively run the outside zone (or even the inside zone, for that matter), so O’Brien started working in more power and gap run concepts just to get some sort of production on the ground. The results were…let’s just say, "mixed". Fast forward nine months later; now O’Brien has a brand new runner in Lamar Miller who is a threat to break a big gain to the edge on every single snap. To put it simply, the outside zone is back, baby!
Not only can O’Brien count on huge chunk yardage on those zone calls, but the Texans employ lots of concepts that build off of the appearance of the outside zone as the ball is snapped. Everything from designed wind-back runs to the weak side of the defensive front, to bootlegs, to even play action "throwback" screens are now all on the table when defenses start cheating outside to stop the run. O’Brien still has all of those power, trap, and gap runs up the middle available as well, considering Miller weighs in at a deceptively bulky 220 pounds. As long as McPhee is off the field and those edges are once again a viable option for Miller, an entirely new section of the playbook is suddenly available for use.
Hell, one could even argue that McPhee was the one player that Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could never afford to lose. So much of the Bears’ philosophy on stopping the run ran through McPhee that the rest of the front seven will have to retool their ways of thinking when trying to shut down the Texans offense. No longer will linebackers be able to shoot inside into the backfield and just know that McPhee is holding down two gaps to the outside. No longer will defensive ends be able to just leverage themselves into ‘B’ gaps while letting McPhee effortlessly handle both ‘C’ and ‘D’. No longer will offenses completely ignore half of the field when calling run plays simply because they do not want to even bother testing his strength. Make no mistake about it—McPhee not being present on Sunday has massive ramifications for every single player on the field. He is just that good.
It remains to be seen just how well this retooled Bears front seven can make their defensive philosophy work without their best player on the field. On paper, they still have the talent to be a "sneaky" good defense. Eddie Goldman is a great young nose tackle on the rise, and both Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman were excellent free agency additions at inside linebacker. Even the secondary has some promising young talent in safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Kyle Fuller. There is still plenty to like on defense up there in Chicago; the real question now is just whether it is enough.
What we do know is this – the Texans have just been given a massive break to start the season. Knowing Bill O’Brien, I would expect him to exploit that crack in Chicago’s armor early and often.
Bears vs Texans coverage