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Film Study: Some good, a lot of not so good, in Nick Gates’ center debut

One of the main story lines surrounding the New York Giants training camp was the possibility of Nick Gates starting center for the 2020 Giants. That possibility became a reality on Monday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it couldn’t have been a worse matchup for Gates. The Steelers are one of the most stout run defenses in the league. They’re incredibly strong at the point of attack and have only surrendered 5 touchdowns on the ground in the last 17 games.

Last season against Miami, we witnessed Gates starting at right guard for an injured Kevin Zeitler. While he was frequently in position to execute blocks, he still struggled to do so because of adequate strength at the point of attack and balance. Both of these issues were exposed on Monday against lineman like Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu, and Stephon Tuitt. But before we dive into some of the concerns about Gates, let’s look at some well-executed blocks that he performed against superior, and more experienced, opponents.

Good plays

Gates locates the outside shoulder of the 2i shade who’s slightly inside of a pulling Kevin Zeitler. This is a difficult block for Gates; he makes contact on the midline of the defender and is able to transition his weight, hips, and body to position himself on the outside portion of the defender. Gates does this by strongly grabbing the outside shoulder of the lineman while maintaining a strong core/grip strength. Then, as the play moves laterally, Gates shifts his weight towards the play and uses his grip to position the lineman to the opposite side. It’s a backside block, but an important one, for failing to execute this block could result in the running back’s path being altered. We saw enough backside pursuit defensive plays from Bud Dupree, so good on Gates to hold up here.

Gates is susceptible to power moves in pass protection, and his balance is suspect, but he does a solid job above. Not to take anything away from the new center, but it doesn’t seem like the defender is trying to use any power moves. From the onset of the play, Gates gets his hands inside and joists with the defender, while also peering out towards his left side to see any stunts coming. Gates is in good position, and stays in front of the defender through the duration of the rep.

This is one of Gates’ better blocks in the game. Tuitt is a 2i off of Zeitler and he attempts to penetrate the A-Gap with upfield burst while using Gates’ outside shoulder as a turn-style. Gates did not allow that. Tuitt gets a little high and Gates puts his inside hand right underneath Tuitt’s inside arm while using that same hand to knock Tuitt’s arm off his body. Then he positioned his own outside hand on the breast-plate of Tuitt, and effectively established his own half-man relationship. Then Gates drives his legs through Tuitt, gets him off-balance, and runs him totally away from the play. Great play from Gates here.

If I’m a defensive coordinator, I’m throwing exotic stunts/twists at Gates in an effort to confuse the young center. Luckily for Keith Butler (Steelers’ defensive coordinator) he has Dupree and T.J. Watt to create pressure, so there wasn’t anything too crazy in that capacity. This play is a quick tackle/linebacker stunt from the Steelers with the Giants on their own goal line, but Gates sees it coming. He initiates contact with the defensive lineman and sees the block through the transition to Zeitler; Gates is in good position, is relatively balanced, and executes well.

I also like Gates’ competitive toughness and lunch-pail mentality. Much like Hernandez, he’s always looking for work and he’s always looking to punish someone. This seems like something that should be a prerequisite to play the position, yet it’s not.

The not so good

Here’s a stretch zone play with 13 personnel running to the two-tight end side and Gates does a poor job reaching Tyson Alualu #94. Gates attempts to square up the nose and get to his outside shoulder, but Alualu isn’t impeded and uses his outside hand to create some separation on Gates, who then stumbles and becomes off-balanced. Alualu outpaces Gates and the center becomes turned around.

Giants are out in beefy 13 personnel, all three tight ends to the boundary on a pin-pull concept with Zeitler and Cam Fleming pulling into space. This puts Gates into a difficult spot to execute a very important block. Gates has to get to the outside portion of Alualu so he doesn’t penetrate and affect the rushing lane — and Gates failed. Gates opens his hips while stepping backwards in a bucket step fashion, but Alualu is too quick and powerful for Gates to handle. The defender wins the pad level battle, gets his inside hand on the breastplate of Gates and creates separation while pushing Gates into the backfield. The hips of Gates are so much higher than Alualu’s hips and Gates ends up impeding Barkley’s rushing path. Barkley’s angle becomes very wide and eventually leads him out of bounds.

Here we see a different type of running play, but again it’s Alualu vs. Gates, and it’s not good. The defender is a nose on this play and he quickly gets his hands inside of Gates, and the center makes the mistake of leaning into the block unbalanced, which leaves him susceptible. Gates’ balance is already a question mark, but when you lose the initial push battle, and lean into a block, you’re leaving yourself incredibly vulnerable to pulls. Alualu comes off the line, establishes the half man, and throws Gates to the ground to blow up the running play before it ever had a chance.

Alualu beats Gates in passing situations as well, as seen above. The nose stabs with his left hand, chops Gates’ left arm with his right arm, and then gets to the half man to swim off the block as Gates falls to the ground. Again, Gates hips are higher, chest is a bit exposed, and he just becomes off-balanced because his center of gravity is not square.

Luckily for Gates, Zeitler wasn’t occupied with another assignment in the play above. Gates lunges at the block and leaves himself completely exposed for an opportunist. Gates lunges at the point of attack and Alualu clubs the outside shoulder of Gates and swims over the top of the center, leaving Gates by himself. Alualu had his number in both phases on Monday.

Gates is aware of the impending stunt from Dupree on the end, but his execution is just a bit off here. He engages, and helps, Zeitler with Tuitt while peering to his left to see Dupree. Unfortunately, he is off with his location and fails to really slow Dupree down. I feel these mistakes will be minimized with more reps; he just has to be a bit more aware of the quickness of specific players, like Dupree.

As I previously mentioned, quick stunts may be a liability with a new center seeing his first live reps, and this play is indicative of that. Cam Heyward (97) does a very good job opening Gates up and taking his attention away from Tuitt, who acts as the penetrator. Once Heyward puts his outside foot into the ground and explodes back inside, Tuitt is there to knock Gates out of the play.

Final thoughts

There’s no denying that Gates struggled in his first start at center. According to Pro Football Focus, Gates ranked 31st among centers in Week 1 offense, 32nd in pass protection, and 23rd in run blocking. His balance and point of attack strength were not adequate to make a difference on most occasions, but that doesn’t mean he’s a lost cause either. It’s a new position for him and maybe he can become more technically proficient to help mask his play strength. He also has to lower his pad level; it’s difficult for someone that is 6-foot-5, but it’s necessary. Let’s hope for a bounce back in Week 2 against Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols, and the rest of the Bears.

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