Playing center effectively in the National Football League requires an encyclopedic knowledge of defenses, the communication skill to make last-second adjustments and the precision to ensure the play starts with a successful snap.
What separates the men from the boys at the position is the ability to get the nose tackle blocked in the run game when it’s you against him.
Coach Mike McCarthy saw JC Tretter do exactly that in the Green Bay Packers’ first two exhibition games, and presumably in practice. It’s why McCarthy on Monday went ahead and declared Tretter the starter even though Corey Linsley, sidelined since mid-May with a hamstring injury, has been No. 1 the past two years.
Watching Tretter perform so well in one-on-one situations against Cleveland and Oakland brought to mind how far he has come since August 2014.
His move to center was in its embryonic stages at that point but the Packers didn’t mind. Not long after they allowed starter Evan Dietrich-Smith to walk to Tampa Bay, McCarthy said of Tretter, “He’s made of the right stuff.”
The Packers drafted Linsley in the fifth round, but that really was for insurance. Linsley didn’t get a single snap with the No. 1 offense before Tretter went down.
Tretter’s first snaps in an NFL game came during a torrential downpour in Tennessee. His debut was solid, but I can remember an NFL personnel man citing one snap as a major red flag on Tretter.
It’s not often centers are matched up one-on-one. In pass protection, they’re almost always double-teaming with a guard. In the run game, they’re often working combination blocks with a guard.
On this first-and-10 play, the guards went straight ahead to block the inside linebackers, leaving Tretter by his lonesome against veteran Sammie Hill, the Titans’ 6-foot-4, 330-pound nose tackle.
Hill pressed Tretter at the line, disengaged when James Starks began to run past and tackled him for a 2-yard gain. It was a play that reflected poorly on Tretter’s power, and it stood out.
Two weeks later, the Raiders arrived at Lambeau Field. This is the game in which Tretter suffered a knee injury in the first quarter that would sideline until midseason.
The play in question occurred on the 15th of Tretter’s 44 snaps in the game. Yes, he was able to play with the injury for another quarter.
On Monday, Tretter indicated it would be fair to evaluate what happened to him on that fourth-and-1 play because he was on the field and therefore had no excuse.
Anyway, the Packers ran Starks off left tackle assuming Tretter could execute a one-on-one reach block against defensive tackle Antonio Smith, a capable 10-year veteran. It’s a difficult block because Smith was shaded to the play-side A gap, but it’s a block that good centers make all the time.
Smith blew the play up with an up-field charge that Tretter was unable to control. Struggling for leverage and to halt Smith’s penetration, Tretter was penalized for holding.
Tretter didn’t know it was Smith but he recalled the play.
“I didn’t reach him,” Tretter said Monday. “He got too much up-field push. I need to get that guy.”
No one has ever questioned Tretter’s athleticism, hustle or intelligence. Because he’s somewhat undersized at 6-3 ½ and 300, some scouts almost automatically have doubted his strength.
“But I don’t think strength was the issue,” said Tretter, who played tight end and left tackle at Cornell. “I think more footwork was the issue. It’s technique and repping it. Before (in 2014) I had probably done that 10 times. Now I’ve probably done it 510 times.”
Tretter went on to say that he definitely was stronger now, at age 25, than two years ago.
“I think the player I was in 2014 and the player I am now are two extremely different players,” he said. “I think I’ve extremely grown in the position. I was just making the move to center then.”
Tretter isn’t as strong as Linsley, according to defensive tackle Mike Pennel, but Pennel said he was plenty strong enough.
That was never more evident than in the first two games.
Exhibition games are like college all-star games. With defenses hiding their regular-season intentions behind base fronts and vanilla coverages, the man-on-man matchups assist scouts in evaluating young players.
As a result, there was a treasure trove of Tretter working one on one against nose tackles Danny Shelton (6-2, 335) of Cleveland, the 12th pick in 2015, and Justin Ellis (6-1 ½, 335) of Oakland, a stout two-year starter.
Tretter was isolated with his man on eight runs, including five reach blocks. Those eight carries gained 35 yards.
Thursday night marked almost two years to the day since the Raiders last visited Green Bay and Smith beat Tretter so badly on that fourth and 1. This time, the Packers’ first run required Tretter to execute that same reach block.
Just as Smith had in 2014, Ellis was shaded to the play-side A gap. Using more refined footwork, Tretter pivoted on his right foot with his second step, maneuvered his body across Ellis’ face and shielded him from Eddie Lacy, who slammed through the hole for 20.
The Packers asked Tretter to reach Shelton on the first play of the opener. Executing beautifully, Tretter got across the bow and kept running his feet until Shelton was on the ground underneath him and Lacy gained 6.
Of Tretter’s 39 snaps in the two games, you might ding him for a mediocre reach block against Oakland’s Dan Williams. Tretter stayed in front of
Williams but was shoved two yards into the backfield and Starks failed to gain.
Tretter combo-blocked Shelton on a 4-yard run by Lacy in which Shelton ended up pancaking Tretter away from the play. It was a reminder that Tretter remains on the light side and at times will get thrown.
Sporting a 5-1-1 record in the training-camp rush drill, Tretter has had too few protection reps in the games to warrant evaluation.
One-on-one in the run game forever will be the litmus test for a center. Tretter is passing with flying colors this summer.-