What a strange journey Jeremy Zuttah has been on during the past six months. From Pro Bowl alternate to being traded to San Francisco to plummeting down the 49ers’ depth chart, he’s back home in Baltimore.
The question is will he be back home at the center spot? When asked that question today after practice, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh stated, “Any center can play guard, but you view Jeremy as primarily a center to start with. It would be an emergency situation that he would be at guard.”
Sure sounds like a competition between the current starter, Ryan Jensen, seems to be in the cards. Meanwhile, Harbaugh was also very complimentary of Jensen’s play: “He’s fought through things…played well in the games.”
With Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley on the mend, Jensen has clearly been the team’s most consistent offensive lineman throughout the preseason. It looks like he’s finally stringing together consistent performances and cutting back on the mental mistakes that have put him behind the eight-ball in the past. In the running game in particular, the former sixth-round pick from Colorado State University-Pueblo has been physical at the point of attack and located well at the second level.
Given the blocking scheme changes run game coordinator Greg Roman is employing (incorporating a higher frequency of man and power concepts), Jensen’s size and ability to move bigger defensive tackles off the ball is a necessity. The center really must be more of a physical anchor and block head up for the downhill ground attack to work.
That’s not to say the team is getting away from zone concepts. Roman has run a hybrid system before in San Francisco and Buffalo, mixing in inside zone, outside zone stretch, and zone read option, and he’s already confirmed that the team won’t abandon one scheme in favor of another.
However, Zuttah is a physical misfit at center in the scheme. His strength is blocking to an area and moving to the second level. Even when he was successful in 2014 under former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, he struggled to hold his ground against bigger nose guards. Last year, Zuttah was consistently pushed back, and coming from San Fran, he’s regressed even more.
How fast can Zuttah get up to speed in the new scheme? Harbaugh explained, “There are some changes with the run game scheme that are really different in the sense of calls, terminology, and even the blocking patterns. But he’ll have to learn and get up to speed. He’s a veteran player and he’s learned those schemes before.”
Mentally, Zuttah should pick things up quickly as Harbaugh mentioned, but it’s the physical part that has to be a concern if he ends up wrestling the job away from Jensen. Jensen has experience playing left guard effectively during a short-term stretch in 2015, so sliding him over is another option the team has.
Count me in the camp that believes Jensen should continue as the team’s starting center and Zuttah can supply depth behind him. It seems like the light is coming on for the fifth-year player in his walk year. Stunting his progression at this stage, especially given the emphasis on improving the power run game, seems like a move that will backfire.
• Harbaugh was also asked about Za’Darius Smith’s play and had nothing but praise for the third-year backer’s performance against the Dolphins on Thursday night. “He played really well. He was all over the field. That is what we have always been looking for, and I love the way he is playing.” In my latest 53-man roster projection, I left Smith off the final cut because of the numbers game, but it’s hard to argue against his performance so far. He’s been superb throughout camp and two preseason games because he’s playing more disciplined and fast off the snap. Moreover, he’s also been able to set the edge in early down situations, which has been a problem for him. If this continues, Smith will earn his spot and a chance to rotate as the starting OLB with second-year man Matt Judon.
• Speaking of Judon, he was terrific rushing the passer against Miami. With a leaner frame, the former Grand Valley State star is at his best using his bull-rush and operating from a three-point stance. In a lot of ways, Judon looks like a Seattle Seahawk type of defensive linemen – long, big, and with the ability to contort/twist through gaps to create pressure. Although Judon is being asked to do more in the coverage game, and he’s adapted well so far, the coaches need to keep using him in multiple ways along the front (inside and outside), much like the Seahawks do with Michael Bennett.
• Lastly, it was good to see rookie OLB Tim Williams notch his first career sack on Thursday night. The sentiment has been that Williams has been pressing a bit and that’s caused him to hesitate and play slower at the snap. With his first sack out of the way, Williams can hopefully play fast again.