This Baltimore Ravens offseason just keeps on getting better.
On Sunday afternoon, the team acquired veteran center Jeremy Zuttah from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 2015 mid-round pick. With the amount of holes on the roster already declining, Zuttah’s addition was just one more step toward fielding a more complete team in 2014. The 27-year-old 2008 draft pick was acquired to be the starting center, and figures into Baltimore’s long-term plans.
Upgrading the center position was arguably the top priority of Baltimore’s offseason, as center Gino Gradkowski had a historically poor performance in 2013. His season was bad enough that the Ravens gave up on him after just one year as the starter, which should come as no surprise. The former fourth-round pick never even remotely improved throughout the 2013 season, leaving a glaring need at the position heading into the offseason.
Adding Zuttah – who is entering the prime of his career – will certainly remedy the center position for the Ravens.
Just how much of an upgrade is Zuttah?
Well, anyone would have been an upgrade over Gradkowski, but Zuttah provides more than just a mild improvement. Where Zuttah’s presence will be felt most in year one with his new team should be in the run game. Baltimore’s zone-blocking experiment was a complete disaster last season, with Gradkowski being one of the many culprits.
But Zuttah’s run-blocking qualities make him ideal for Baltimore’s run scheme. One of his best assets is his ability to pull, get moving in space and find a man to block, valuable assets to the non-traditional running scheme Baltimore will use yet again next season.
Tampa Bay used his athletic ability to its advantage, pulling him on outside run plays.
Zuttah is quick enough to get to the outside before the running back and find a man to block.
His blocking against stronger defenders (in this case safety Kam Chancellor) often provides mixed results. However, finding a man to block and initiating the block is often good enough, as long as the timing is right with the running back.
Zuttah’s run-game positives also include his ability to find a man to successfully seal off on the backside of a run play.
On this play against the New York Jets, Zuttah finds himself uncontested as the run play develops toward the right.
The running back has an open running lane off Zuttah’s back, and he consequently cuts back toward the middle of the field and Zuttah.
This leaves the center with the duty of sealing off the left side of the line, which involves cutting off the oncoming Sheldon Richardson from the left side of the offensive line.
Zuttah seals off Richardson in a one-on-one, in-space opportunity, giving his running back a lane on his side.
Another asset Zuttah possesses that should translate well to Baltimore’s run scheme is his ability to meet linebackers at the second level and seal them off.
Here, Zuttah has already engaged with the linebacker before the handoff has even occurred in the backfield.
This gives Zuttah ample time to seal off his defender as the run play develops, and he perfectly positions himself to do so by getting leverage and turning the linebacker away from the play.
As a run blocker, there isn’t much not to like with Zuttah, and he brings multiple traits that should prove valuable to Baltimore’s rush attack next season.
He’ll be a noticeable upgrade in this aspect, and instead of just being “not as bad as Gradkowski,” Zuttah is a good enough run blocker that his positive plays should often be the difference makers on long run plays.
In pass protection, Zuttah’s inconsistencies are more evident, and for the most part, those inconsistencies are mainly caused by one deficiency: his strength.
He holds a block much better than Gradkowski; however, when strong pass rushers come at him full speed, he can easily get knocked out of position.
Here, an oncoming Michael Bennett’s initial contact with Zuttah takes him off balance, throwing off the center’s weight distribution.
This allows Bennett to easily engage and shed off Zuttah, kicking him to the side and having a free shot at the quarterback.
Plays like this aren’t too common for Zuttah, but it’s something he’ll likely never improve on, as he still had this deficiency in his sixth NFL season. Stronger rushers will catch Zuttah off guard on occasion, but overall, his pass protection is still a major improvement over Gino.
Where his presence in the passing game will be felt most should be in his awareness of extra rushers, something Gradkowski had obvious trouble with in 2013, particularly when picking up the “Mike” linebacker.
Against the Carolina Panthers, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly tips his blitz before the snap, giving Zuttah a chance to identify and react.
Zuttah engages with Kuechly immediately off the snap and gains favorable positioning.
As the pass play develops, Zuttah effortlessly holds off the blitzing middle linebacker, giving his quarterback a clean pocket.
Awareness is just as important as physical ability when it comes to playing the center position, and Zuttah certainly isn’t lacking in that aspect.
When it comes to Baltimore’s new addition at center, the positives outweigh the negatives. Zuttah is an experienced player, and that experience shows in pass protection with his feel for the game.
In the run game, Zuttah has plenty of desirable qualities, and his presence should be one of the many reasons why Baltimore’s run game figures to improve next season.
The Ravens lacked any consistency at center last season, but with Zuttah now in Baltimore, there promises to be more than enough dependability from the position next time around.