Benardrick McKinney is the last piece of the ferocious trinity that stepped up for the Texans’ defense to thrive in a Wattless world. Because of three players—McKinney, Jadeveon Clowney, and A.J. Bouye (whose impressive film I broke down last week)—the Texans had a top ten defense and were able to steal the AFC South by barely scraping past 20 points each week, thanks to one of the worst offenses in the league.
For McKinney, 2016 wasn’t a leap. It was a propulsion to another layer of atmosphere. The 2015 season was a learning year for McKinney. He wasn’t a consistent starter at the beginning of the season because of mistakes. He covered the wrong players. He misread his keys. He sucked himself into blocks. When he did correctly follow the assignment, he was fractions of a second behind because of slower synapses.
This play against Atlanta is the epitome of McKinney’s rookie season. McKinney has the receiver running an outside route. Brian Cushing has the receiver running an inside route. Instead of covering Devonta Freeman, McKinney incorrectly follows the drag route. Both Cushing and McKinney end up doubling an inconsequential route while Freeman hits the open road for 44 yards out of the backfield.
In 2015, McKinney played 14 games and 411 defensive snaps. He started 11 games and made 58 plays, or 8.5% of the team’s total. In 2016, McKinney elevated his play, starting all 16 games, playing 915 defensive snaps (90.6%), and breaking the Texans’ terrible second inside linebacker bloodline of Bradie James, Akeem Dent, Barrett Ruud, Tim Dobbins, Mike Mohamed, and Jeff Tarpinian.
McKinney found meaning in a meaningless world by stopping the opponent’s inside run game. In 2015, Houston allowed 3.95 yards a carry (13th in the NFL) and had 3.68 adjusted line yards (9th) against inside runs. McKinney had 24 tackles on these plays. In 2016, Houston allowed 3.49 yards a carry (5th in the NFL) and had 3.63 adjusted line yards (11th) on the same plays. In 2016, McKinney made 44 tackles on those plays, which was 13th in the league.
What makes McKinney so great against the inside run is his size and strength. At 6’4” and 260 pounds, McKinney is a monolith of a man, a slab of granite seeping out of the valley’s floor. When blockers attack him at the second level, he simply ignores them. 300+ pound players are nonexistent to Benardrick McKinney. He stands his ground, shoves off, and leaves for the ball carrier.
In this instance, the Chargers are running an inside zone play. The outside blockers are cutting off inside penetration. The inside blockers have two strong double teams to both inside linebackers. The deuce between King Dunlap (#77) and Orlando Franklin (#74) goes to inside linebacker Brian Cushing (#56). The ace between Matt Slauson (#68) and D.J. Fluker (#76) goes from D.J. Reader (#98) to Benardrick McKinney.
D.J. Reader fights, but he’s still driven three yards off the line. McKinney takes a slide step left and then heads to the center to crash the mash of bodies. Slauson comes off the block naturally to McKinney. The problem for Slauson is McKinney makes contact first. The linebacker punches and staves off Slauson. With his eyes on Melvin Gordon, McKinney pushes off, heads to the hole, and tackles Gordon for a scant gain.
McKinney hits Gordon head on. This impact turns Gordon sideways. McKinney wraps up the midsection and drives, tumbling Gordon over.
When McKinney makes tackles, he brings it. Rarely, if ever, do running backs come into McKinney and get those extra dribbles of yards. Their tombstones are placed exactly where contact is made. McKinney snuffs out runs like a freshly licked thumb and forefinger squeezing a candle wick.
On plays where the blocker makes contact first, McKinney bounces off them. Here Green Bay is running an outside zone play left, with the fullback coming against the grain to block McKinney.
B-Mac flows at an angle downhill when he sees Ty Montgomery’s shoulders turn at an acute angle to the line of scrimmage, signaling an outside zone play. Usually on this play, the center blocks McKinney. Instead he’s running Vince Wilfork off the line to create a chasm in the center of the line, which sets up the block on McKinney.
McKinney takes the hit on the fullback’s outside shoulder. He bounces off the contact and hops right laterally. He catches the back bouncing off of Whitney Mercilus’ initial hit and drags him backwards in a belly-to-back suplex.
This enormous man is known as a lumberer. He’s a pillager in the box and between the tackles, a painted thespian confined until enough turns detonate him. McKinney is more than this. He can play from the inside to the edge as well. In the run game, he shows off lateral quickness. He will bounce laterally to the hole and break downhill to make tackles. He’ll run through multiple blocks and chase down running backs horizontally. He has the ability to assail and affect every gap on the line of scrimmage. He’s both inside and outside the box.
On this play, San Diego is running a zone play designated for Gordon to cut back to the strong side of the formation against Houston’s bear front. The deuce between Dunlap (#77) and Franklin (#74) is intended to drive the defensive end inside, and then have Dunlap pop off to McKinney.
Dunlap gives too much help to the guard and turns his shoulders. McKinney mimics Gordon’s movement. He takes two steps inside before planting and cutting outside. He bursts, sprints, and springs, clamping Gordon’s ankles and spinning him around the turf in crocodilian fashion.
Here against Indianapolis is something similar. The Colts are running counter to the right and are pulling their center Ryan Kelly (#78) and right guard Joe Reitz (#73). Kelly goes out to the alley and picks up the first unblocked man he sees. Reitz is supposed to come around the corner and block the safety, leading the way for Robert Turbin.
McKinney is in man coverage on Dwayne Allen (#83). His head is turned and he’s watching the snap, waiting for the play to begin. When it does, McKinney sees the center and right guard pull. Subsequently, he attacks Allen head up and tries to get to the right edge. McKinney punches Allen, gets to his outside shoulder, driving Allen right, with his eyes on the ball carrier.
Half of McKinney is on Allen. His outside half is free. When Reitz comes around the corner, he opts to attack the imminent threat rather than run to the safety. His brilliant plan is to drive McKinney into the safety. Reitz has perfect fit with Allen because McKinney’s outside half is free. They are hip to hip and in unison.
McKinney turns his body to take on Allen’s block. He uses his left arm to take on Reitz. He continues driving outside and follows the path of the ball carrier. When Turbin gets around the corner, McKinney starts his escape. With his right arm, he rips off Allen’s block. With his left arm, he knocks off Reitz and rips off his block. McKinney takes on and stands up the double team, and then skillfully wiggles out of two blocks in an instant. From there, McKinney tackles Turbin over the rubble that is Robert Nelson meeting Ryan Kelly.
Stopping the run is what McKinney is here to do. He wraps the box in chains with his strength and size, ignoring and swatting bigger men away, treating them as mere nuisances. Because of his size, McKinney can run through pulls, double teams, and multiple blocks. With his surprising burst and closing speed, he breaks on backs to close in on tackles. When contact is made, all hope of a successful play is extinguished.
McKinney’s performance in the passing game was the biggest surprise this season, not the 78 run tackles that were the seventh most in the league or his eight tackles for loss. Some sort of version of this was expected from a player with his talent and draft pedigree. What McKinney did against the pass wasn’t expected. The biggest change in McKinney’s game from 2015 to 2016 was the difference he made rushing the passer. McKinney had just one sack, one hit, and one hurry during his rookie season. This past season, McKinney had eight pressures, eleven hits on the quarterback, and five sacks. This was crucial for Houston, as the Texans had little inside pass rush from their interior defensive linemen.
2016 Texans Interior Pass Rush
The Texans’ interior defensive line had 25 hurries and 4.5 sacks. In order to generate interior pressure, Romeo Crennel used stunts, delayed blitzes, with Cushing and McKinney on inside blitzes, to take the quicker route to the quarterback.
The majority of McKinney’s pass rushes came on delayed blitzes. Crennel had him and Cushing rush the passer instead of sitting in coverage when their assignment stayed into block. On this pass attempt, Houston is showing and overloading the right side of the line of scrimmage with a blitz. Four defenders are rushing. Indy has the left side of their line move one gap over, with their running back looking inside-out to pick up any free rushers. On the right side, they are playing man-on-man. This gets confusing for Reitz. Wilfork and Reader run the fattest stunt in the center of the line of scrimmage and Reitz has no one to block.
Reitz looks inside. He sees nothing. He’s proactive and goes to help out with Mercilus. When he turns his head away, McKinney runs down the freeway to rush the passer. Now him and Cushing have a footrace to see who gets to hit Andrew Luck. McKinney wins, of course. Like all previous hits, McKinney crumples the gigantic Luck.
McKinney’s vision and straight line speed are what make him a great blitzer. He sees the hole open up, and he attacks it. He closes the distance between him and the quarterback quickly. When he finally gets there, he scalds the quarterback with kinetic energy.
When he’s actually blocked, McKinney doesn’t have any real pass rush moves. He just uses his strength to overwhelm offensive linemen and tries to run right through them.
Here McKinney and Mercilus are lined up to the right against man pass protection. McKinney crashes inside to open up the loop for Mercilus. McKinney drives the tackle away in the process, opening up the rush and creating the sack for himself. This is just brute force without a feral green dinosaur.
This vision aids him in pass coverage, too. McKinney is fine at sitting in underneath zones and watching the quarterback’s eyes. He can make plays on the ball by using his height and long arms to take away throwing lanes.
The problem is that McKinney can’t play man coverage. Quick running backs leave him looking creaky, and tight ends run past him if he doesn’t jam them on their release. In man coverage, McKinney is constantly chasing. He can’t cover receivers in space and isolation.
Oakland and New England did the best job attacking McKinney in man coverage. Oakland completed 11-12 passes to their running backs for 172 yards and two touchdowns. In the playoffs, New England completed 4-10 passes for 42 yards and two spine-extracting, fatality touchdowns.
Against Oakland, Jalen Richard had three catches on three targets for 29 yards and this touchdown. McKinney is covering him in the slot. Richard gets him to bite on the outside fake after wriggling off the line. Once McKinney’s feet stop, he’s done. He tries to get moving again and stumbles back after Richard, but he can’t before the pass is completed. Richard then cuts up field and splits both safeties for a score.
New England schemed specifically in the red zone to attack McKinney in man coverage. Below, Tom Brady motions James Develin to the other side of the formation. Against man coverage, this puts the slot corner on Develin instead of Dion Lewis. McKinney is now forced to cover Lewis.
Lewis runs into the flat. He catches the pass and makes a stutter step to get McKinney shuffling instead of chasing. Once McKinney is moving horizontally, Lewis blows right past him.
On this touchdown, James White gets McKinney to stop his feet. After this happens, James White, again, blows right past him.
When McKinney covers tight ends, the jam is crucial. He can’t mimic players to stay in front of them. He has to smother them at the line. When he misses, he chases.
Here, Martellus Bennett has an inside release. McKinney gets his hands on him, but he doesn’t hit him head on. With inside advantage, Bennett gets open on his post route with McKinney chasing again. It doesn’t end up mattering because the overrated Bennett drops an easy completion.
Frankly, McKinney is terrible in man coverage. But he does enough in zone coverage and blitzing to warrant playing him on third down. The amount of snaps he plays in man coverage has to be limited, though. Smart teams like New England will attack this mismatch every chance they can, which can force Houston to run a more limited defense or simply force Houston to just not play McKinney, which opens up shotgun and spread runs. McKinney does some things great and everything else well, except for one thing, and OH BOY is he bad at it.
Moving forward, I think McKinney is what he is. That isn’t a bad thing. I don’t see him suddenly becoming a good man coverage defender because he hasn’t been in college or at this level. Unless they get bit by a radioactive spider, people don’t get better at innate things out of nowhere. Instead, I see McKinney getting better at what he already does well. He’ll get better at recognizing plays and will react quicker. Maybe he’ll learn some pass rush moves instead of just bursting through splits in the line of scrimmage or moving offensive linemen around when he rushes the passer. Because of that, his production will continue to grow. The tackle numbers will tick higher. The pass rush stats will increase. Big picture, he’ll still be the same. He’ll be an enormous, macabre, face-painted, run-suffocating bruiser playing the position in a style from a different time.