One of the biggest, and most pleasant surprises, of the 2020 season was the functionality of Nick Gates after he transitioned to center.
Gates was a 2018 undrafted tackle out of Nebraska who flashed the versatility to play tackle and guard during the 2019 campaign. Dave Gettleman had the prescience to re-sign Gates to a cap-friendly contract extension that goes through the 2022 season.
I had my doubts about Gates transitioning to center in a truncated off-season. The center position is mentally demanding, typically requires a low center of gravity (Gates is 6’5), and it’s completely different from playing out on an island as a tackle. The vision and awareness of playing center is an entirely different animal than tackle and even guard.
Despite never playing the position before, Gates was able to step into the starting role and perform solidly. He didn’t give up any sacks, and he surrendered only 16 pressures; Jon Halapio, the previous starting center in 2019, gave up two sacks and 27 pressures.
Gates brought a necessary tenacity, energy, and meanness to the offensive line that is typically over scripted in a football-based Hollywood film - I loved every second of it.
My concerns about Gates heading into the 2020 season were due to strength and pad level issues; these manifested themselves at times throughout the 2020 season but weren’t as prevalent as I envisioned heading into the year.
He vastly outperformed my expectations, and I’ll gladly eat crow and spill my yolky breakfast all over my face. But now, Gates has to take the next step in his development. Let’s examine some of his 2020 film in this edition of the Good, the Great, and the Ugly.
(Nick Gates is No. 65)
The Good: Toughness
Toughness--this is a complete blanket term that is a bit ambiguous. Still, plenty of plays indicate how Gates's competitive nature allows him to halt defenders or stop negative offensive plays. This happens both as a run blocker and in pass protection.
This isn’t the best technique from Gates on this play. Greg Gaines (No. 91) absorbs the double team, gets his hands inside, sinks his lower half, locks Gates out, and then proceeds to get his eyes on the ball carrier. Gates' pad level is too high, but watch how there is this resilience to Gates that disallows Gaines from making the tackle.
Gaines positions himself in the A-Gap and has leverage to make this play, but Gates unlocks a second effort, plants his inside foot hard in the ground, and uses it to explode might through Gaines and drive him to the floor. Despite initial solid technique on Gaines' part, he is slammed to the ground by the will of Nick Gates.
Here is a quick pin-pull concept with Gates pinning the 2i-technique while Kevin Zeitler (No. 70) flows over the top of Gates to the five-hole off the double-team block on the 3-technique. Gates is a bit high out of his stance but explodes somewhat through his hips.
He can’t gain good positioning or inside hand access, but he shuffles his feet, pulls the defender's inside shoulder downward, and then drives his legs through the target. In doing this, he’s able to overpower the half-man of the defender and plant him on the deck.
Another pin-pull concept with Zeitler pulling and Gates pinning the 2-technique. Gates steps laterally and positions himself well while bringing his outside arm up hard underneath the inside arm-pit of the defender.
Then Gates splits his midline with his inside arm, shimmies about a yard past the line of scrimmage to cut off the angle, and anchors in place. This creates a path off the backside of Gates, past the climb of Will Hernandez (No. 71) and the devastating down block of Andrew Thomas (No. 78).
At the Second Level
The Rams attempt to plug the A-gap with a linebacker, and Gates shows great awareness not to form the double team on the 1-technique. Gates looks in that direction, steps in that direction, and sees the linebacker coming downhill, so he diverts his attention towards that threat.
Gates puts himself into position, gets his hands underneath the arms of the linebacker, and then uses power to establish the correct position to maximize the run by the Giants. He then just continues to drive through his target until they both end up on the ground.
Gates gets a free release up to Kenny Young (No. 41), an undersized linebacker who has been put into a bind. Gates flows laterally, sees no double teams to climb, climbs to locate, and then drives through Young until they both end up on the ground.
In Pass Protection
Toughness is the theme of this section, but smarts and awareness could easily be one as well. Shane Lemieux (66) has a lot of potential as a blocker; he’s tough, imposing, can anchor, and does well with his pulling, but he was a liability in the initial stages of pass protection, early in the play, for many reps last season. Gates bailed him out several times throughout the season.
Lemieux keeps his elbows tight here but oversets, and overextends at the waist, and is beaten by a club/swim move to the inside. Gates' eyes dart towards Lemieux as he makes contact with his right hand on Zeitler’s assignment.
Once he sees the interior pressure, Gates opens his hips, explodes off his right foot, makes contact with the defender, and drives him down to the ground to avoid a catastrophe.
A huge part of playing center is recognizing and picking up stunts/twists from the defense. This is Gates’ first game at center, and he does it well against a ferocious Steelers defense. Judging by the movement of the nose, Gates seems to anticipate the stunt, so he gets to the side of the defender and assists him towards Hernandez.
He then flips his hips well, steps towards the looper (creating more room for Daniel Jones in the pocket), and then engages the looper with both hands and keeps the continuity of the pocket intact. This is a very aware play from a neophyte center.
As you’ll see in a bit, Gates isn’t always the best in terms of power and strength against top-notch nose techniques. However, he does a good job on both plays above by readjusting his plan and riding each defender up towards his right guard after surrendering the half-man relationship.
It’s solid secondary strength, adjustment, and awareness to know how to combat determined pass rushers who may be gaining an advantage.
The Great: Excellent Location Skills in Space
I was a bit shocked to see how many times Gates could locate, close width, and destroy the enemy (if you know, you know). The Giants ran some trick plays, throwback screens, G-Lead (double pullers with Gates as the second ), and other pin-pull concepts that would allow Gates to pick up and move into the space outside of the end man on the line of scrimmage.
This linebacker is in pursuit here, and it’s not an easy block, especially since he keeps his path tight to the blocks upfront. It is G-Lead (run out of a two-back look with the frontside guard pulling to kick out the primary support defender and the fullback leading up through the hole), and Kevin Zeitler takes out the force defender so Gates becomes the lead blocker.
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Both Levine Toilolo (No. 85) and Kaden Smith (No. 82) do a great job holding their blocks at the point of attack. Gates swings around and locates the near hip of Devin White (45), one of the better linebackers in the NFL. Gates is like a locomotive and just takes White out of the play, resulting in a big run from Alfred Morris (No. 41).
Here’s the same rushing play from a double-Y formation out of shotgun and Zeitler leads to locate the force defender, Toilolo and Smith do a great job sealing and picking up tight scraping linebackers.
This leaves the most dangerous man--a poor safety--who will have the unfortunate reality of meeting Nick Gates in the hole. Gates shows great vision--he sees the safety, locates the near hip, and kicks the player out, creating a hole for Devonta Freeman (No. 31).
Similar play here against the Bengals: G-Lead from a double Y. The only change is that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett incorporates some pre-snap motion to hold the linebackers until the keys are fully read.
In this play, the cornerback squeezes down towards the line of scrimmage, and the corner from the opposite side of the field takes contain outside.
This forces Zeitler to not get a clean block on that first defender coming down towards the line of scrimmage. Zeitler gets to the defender’s outside, and Gates quickly comes through to run over the player. It is impressive looking, but the blocking on this play wasn’t as effective, and the defense threw a wrinkle into the mix to assist that.
This play is a throwback screen that takes a bit too long for my GIF generator to process, so I cut the film to the block. Gates is standing on the 41-yard-line and is tasked to pick up the most dangerous defender, which he does with ease by attacking the inner thigh of the evading defensive back.
The impressive thing here is that Gates stops his momentum before attacking, then squares up, then locates, and plays through the defender. It’s not the same as the G-Lead play where the momentum is completely going.
The Ugly: Can Struggle with Power
Run blocking power
Gates is a powerful human--don’t get that wrong--but the defenders he goes up against fall into that one percent as well. Gates doesn't always have the best leverage, positioning, or pad level due to his height, and this was exposed against powerful defensive linemen.
Daron Payne (No. 94) is an absolute beast of a defensive lineman for the Washington Football Team, and he gave Gates a lot of trouble. Payne is the 1-technique here, and Gates snaps the ball and heads play side while flowing laterally, engaged with Payne.
Payne uses the outside arm to control the chest of Gates, grabs cloth, and then throws Gates in the direction the center was moving while adjusting to the cut-back lane of the running back. The young defensive lineman had pure control of Gates and tossed him to the side with ease on this play.
Gates started to overpursue throughout the game and get a bit more emphatic with his engagements with Payne. This led Gates to compromise his technique to overcompensate for the strength of Payne.
On this play, he attacks quickly, stays low, and attempts to get to the play side shoulder of Payne. Sounds good, but Gates didn’t anticipate or account for an inside pass-rush move; Payne used a violent inside club to assist Gates to the ground.
Gates gets good positioning and holds on well during this play with Payne, but the power and drive aren’t there to get Payne out of his responsibility. Payne is able to flow towards the ball carrier and then just tosses Gates to the ground towards the end of the play.
These are issues that Gates has to work on because the strength isn’t elite. I appreciate Gates's competitive toughness and will in his attempt to stick in front of Payne, but more drive and explosiveness through his hips may be warranted to block players like Payne consistently.
Tim Settle (No. 97) of the Washington Football Team gives Gates some issues on this run blocking rep; there seems to be a miscommunication between one, or both, of the guards and Gates.
He steps to Settle at the 1-technique position but gives a clear path for the defender in the opposite A-Gap. The defender quickly engages Gates on his outside shoulder pad with his own inside arm and pulls Gates violently downward. Gates also misses Settle with his outside stab, furthering his momentum to the ground. It’s a poor framing from Gates on Settle.
Sebastion Joseph-Day (No. 69) takes Gates to task on this shotgun inside zone rushing play. Gates doesn’t explode enough through his hips, but we can see them move upward upon contact in a rolling fashion.
It doesn’t do much to Joseph-Day, who locates the running back and sheds Gates as his pad level rises once his hips are uncoiled. These are plays that just can’t happen.
Pass blocking power
Gates also gets pulled to the ground on this push-pull in week one against the Steelers. Gates attempts to get his hands underneath and inside the nose technique, who easily just gains the center's chest and pulls him to the ground after establishing half-man dominance.
The 3-technique slants inside and engages Hernandez, so Gates goes to look for work, something he typically does very well and at, for which he should be applauded.
However, in this play, he absorbs a long, powerful inside arm move that puts him to the ground. The feet aren’t positioned well to absorb the contact, and he does little to affect the pass rusher.
Nick Gates outplayed my expectations by a lot last year. His mean streak was infectious, his technique was solid at times, and he was astute in a precocious manner for a player so new to the position.
His struggles with leverage and power carry some concern, but these can be worked on and possibly developed into a more consistent part of his game. I am not sure if Gates will ever be one of the strongest, most dominating, physical centers in the game, but I do believe he is a center that can continue to grow and develop as a good starter while also being a great leader.
More "Good, Great & Ugly" Breakdowns
WR Kelvin Benjamin | RB Devontae Booker | RB Corey Clement | OLB Lorenzo Carter | CB Isaac Yiadom | TE Kaden Smith | WR Kenny Golladay | TE Levine Toilolo | Edge Ifeadi Odenigbo | DT Danny Shelton | OL Zach Fulton | CB Adoree' Jackson | TE Evan Engram | S Jabrill Peppers | S Xavier McKinney | ILB Reggie Ragland | WR John Ross | TE Kyle Rudolph | OLB Oshane Ximines | LB Carter Coughlin | IDL Dexter Lawrence II | WR Darius Slayton | LB Cam Brown | DL Leonard Williams | OL Will Hernandez | IDL Austin Johnson | IDL B.J. Hill | WR Sterling Shepard | ILB Blake Martinez | DB Logan Ryan
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