Shea McClellin is not panning out like the Bears hoped. They won’t tell us that because general manager Phil Emery is the one who selected him only a year ago, but it’s clear by the former first-round pick’s performance.
He looks lost when rushing the passer, having registered only one sack and eight hurries this season. Those have come by relentless pursuit or a stunt that’s freed him up. Otherwise, he’s been inefficient in his 273 snaps, playing with poor pad level, hand usage, and a lack of strength that’s doomed him at the point of attack.
His inadequacies have been apparent throughout the season, with them particularly standing out in a Week 4 loss to the Detroit Lions. He failed to generate any pressure, drawing blanks on the stat sheet and a -2.0 rushing grade, his worst of the season according to Pro Football Focus. He struggled at the point of attack, being knocked around by offensive tackles and blocked by tight ends (that happened in the New Orleans Saints game, too), which shouldn’t be happening as a base 40-front end.
But it does with McClellin. On one play, a speed rush, he got pushed around at the last second and wasn’t able to rotate his hips back inside to close off the sack. It was in the second quarter at the 12:48 mark, and he was lined up on the weak-side as a five technique. He was shaded outside left tackle Riley Reiff’s shoulder in a three-point stance and targeting quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was in the shotgun. If everything went according to plan, he’d speed by Reiff, explode off his inside foot and collapse the pocket. It was a matter of agility and hip rotation.
When he fired off the line of scrimmage, he raised his pad level up and then squared his hips as he turned the corner. With his left arm out to protect himself from Reiff, he sunk his left shoulder and turned the corner. With leverage in his favor, all he had to do was drive off his inside foot, rotate his hips inside and wallop Stafford. When he went to explode inside, he failed to because he didn’t have enough strength to power through Reiff’s last-second push.
What’s troubling about this is that his speed rush was actually very well done, yet easily rendered ineffective. McClellin’s lack of strength at 260 pounds is problematic and a big reason why he hasn’t been very good thus far. He’s either knocked off his path by a heavy-handed offensive tackle or he sticks to them like velcro, as he did later in the second quarter.
There were 37 seconds left, and the Lions were attempting to get into field goal position to extend their 20-point lead. The ball was near midfield and McClellin was this time matched up on the right side (the strong-side) against offensive tackle Corey Hilliard. McClellin was in the nine technique, lined up wide and outside the tight end. And again he had clear sight of Stafford’s dropback from his shotgun set. This time, however, he would pass on the speed rush and go for a bull-rush.
He came off the line and gave a quick one-two step. He bounced off his right foot then his left, attempting to get Hilliard off-balance and then power through him. Hilliard didn’t fall for it and waited on the impending bull-rush, which McClellin failed to execute. His pad level was good enough, but his footwork was not. Because his right foot was not firmly planted in the ground, that left only his left foot to impossibly generate power. That wasn’t happening against a 300-pound offensive tackle and as a result, McClellin made little progress in his rush.
Footwork is essential to pass-rushing. It doesn’t always get attention from evaluators because of a focus on pad level and hand usage, but it’s equally important. Proper footwork can help overcome a strength deficiency, which would be beneficial in McClellin’s case.
Two quarters later, he tried to beat Hilliard again but with a different move, a rip. Although there was no tight end, McClellin was once again lined up wide in a three-point stance. At the snap of the ball, he took four steps off the line and turned his body inside as he locked up with Hilliard. He used his left hand to grab Hilliard’s right and then used his right to go underneath the blocker’s shoulder. This was the beginning of a rip move, but the key was to keep his shoulder low, his body wide, and his hips moving while running around the corner. This is where McClellin’s struggles would begin.
He was too far to the inside, making it difficult to turn the corner. This was exacerbated by his lack of strength, which became an issue when Hilliard recovered and anchored down. McClellin’s pad level raised up once he was punched, and a final push knocked him fully off his path, marking yet another ineffective rush.
McClellin’s not a hopeless NFL player. There’s a chance he still becomes a contributor to the Bears’ defense, but that’s far from a certainty. He’s struggling with the essentials of the defensive end position, which he may not be a fit for to begin with. He may be better fit as a 3-4 stand-up rusher like he was in college, but that’s unlikely to happen in Chicago barring a schematic change for good. Regardless of the position, he needs to improve his strength, pad level and hand usage, or he won’t pan out at all for Emery and the Bears.