Many in the Baltimore media chronicled Gino Gradkowski’s struggles throughout the 2013 campaign. Although Gradkowski improved when the calendar turned December, he only graduated to a below-average starting center. In response, the Ravens turned to former Buccaneer Jeremy Zuttah to fill Gradkowski’s shoes to start the 2014 season. I watched approximately 1/4 of Zuttah’s snaps over 6 games in 2013 to see what the Ravens are getting in return for their conditional 5th round draft pick.
Discuss/criticize on our Message Board.
Gradkowski’s smallish frame hurt the Ravens last year as he was pushed back into the pocket from power nose tackles. From a size standpoint, Zuttah is only an inch taller and 10lbs heavier. Zuttah, however, carries his bulk a bit higher which gives him greater upper-body strength to fend off 0-techs and nose shades. Even with a larger frame, Zuttah represents an improvement in lateral mobility at the center position. Zuttah has the light feet that are coveted in the zone-blocking scheme. Unfortunately, his technique does not always match his athleticism.
In the Zone-Blocking Scheme
The Buccaneers under Greg Schiano used zone running plays as their base attack. This is fortunate for Ravens fans because one can watch the tape and project Zuttah into the Ravens zone-blocking scheme directly. When watching Zuttah run block, it was clear to me that he had a strong understanding of the zone-blocking system:
The above play exemplifies what Zuttah can accomplish within the zone-blocking scheme. Here, he executed the needed technique almost flawlessly. Unfortunately for Ravens fans, Zuttah is inconsistent with his technique.
Zuttah generally shows quick lateral movement, a trait that was praised when the trade was announced. Despite this, he doesn’t always use his nimbleness to his advantage. When tasked with blocking 1-techs, Zuttah too often settles to attack the back-side shoulder instead of working his hips to “reach” his assignment. This is problematic because defensive tackles can wedge themselves into the ball carrier’s path and muddy the runner’s reads.
The previously diagrammed play depicts Zuttah’s success in combination blocks. Zuttah, however, too often scoops to the second level before ensuring that the down lineman is accounted for by his back-side guard. This leaves the guard struggling to maintain leverage which he often loses. Once Zuttah scoops to the second level, he is generally good at impeding the flow of inside linebackers. He doesn’t always take the correct blocking angles and he can (unsurprisingly) fall victim to evasive maneuvers. Fortunately, quick-hitting zone-blocking plays will only ask Zuttah to delay a scraping linebacker’s timing.
Some may say that Zuttah’s technique can be shored up by Gary Kubiak and Juan Castillo prior to the upcoming season. I believe Zuttah’s technique can be improved upon, particularly in a system that will drill the zone-blocking scheme until it is perfect. This said, Zuttah struggles when blocking powerful defensive/nose tackles on his own. Zuttah’s propensity to a) get too high and b) stop his feet gets him in trouble and forces him into the backfield. If Zuttah is to climb above mediocrity at the center position, he must learn to be more flexible with his hips and to not get thrown off balance after engaging a defender.
When Baltimore announced they had traded for Zuttah, the instant analysis lauded his pass protection because he did not allow a sack in 2013 (per PFF). Digging a bit deeper, the same statistical service accredited him with 23 total QB Pressures, tied for 6th most among 30 qualifying centers in 2013. After watching Zuttah’s tape, these numbers don’t surprise me. Zuttah is somewhat lead-footed in pass protection preferring to set and engage rather than flexibly mirroring a rusher’s moves and counter-moves. It was telling that the Bucs used a great deal of “half slide” and “full slide” protection to help Zuttah so that he was not forced to block nose tackles alone. When he was responsible for one specific defender, the results were often not pretty:
The above play was not an anomaly. This happened far too often for my liking and his deficiencies may have to be covered up by scheme. Fortunately, Kubiak’s design rarely leaves centers alone on an island. Last year’s reliance on “scat (5-man) protection” will be replaced with 6- and 7-man protection schemes that, along with play/boot action, will mitigate Zuttah’s weaknesses. Additionally, the use of the HB screen game may preclude opponents from rushing aggressively.
Zuttah will be 28 when the new season begins and I think he can be molded into a solid starting center. Where he lacks power, he largely makes up for it with experience in the mental aspects of a zone-blocking based offense. As I mentioned in my piece on the offensive line plan, the Ravens will implement several tactics that indirectly help the center position by design. Fans should not expect Zuttah to be a standout lineman this coming year but, an up-and-down role player is certainly an improvement at the center position, right?