Why J.C. Tretter might be on the next flight to Tampa Bay

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Football is a brutal business.

While fans of the game rejoiced this week as training camps opened around the league for the 2022 campaign, the brutality of the sport hit us all in the face Thursday morning. News broke out of  Tampa Bay that Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen went down with an apparent leg injury, and needed to be carted off the field.

Reports out of Tampa Bay Thursday night were anything but optimistic, as it seemed the Buccaneers were bracing for the worst:

Friday morning brought word that the team fears a season-ending knee injury for Jensen:

Thankfully, as noted there might be the perfect option available: Current free agent J.C. Tretter.

Despite his status as one of the game’s top centers, Tretter was released by the Cleveland Browns this off-season, saving the organization over $8 million in cap space. With Tretter available, he might be the answer to Tampa Bay’s prayers.

Here is why.

A veteran's presence in pass protection

(Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal)

When protecting Brady is on the to-do list, one must start with pass protection. The old saw with Brady is that near-immediate interior pressure is his Achilles’ Heel as a passer. Of course, almost any quarterback would struggle with pressure in his face right after the snap, and Brady is no different.

Still, Brady is at his best when he can climb in the pocket, and is comfortable stepping up and away from edge pressure. To provide him with that kind of environment, you need a center who can handle his business on the inside.

Despite being released by the Browns this past off-season, Tretter was still a near-rock in protection a year ago. Pro Football Focus charted him with one allowed sack, and ten quarterback pressured allowed. He also allowed just a single quarterback hit, and eight QB hurries.

Those are impressive numbers.

Even at this point in his career, Tretter combines impressive movement skills with awareness and a veteran’s presence. Throughout the 2021 campaign, you could see his ability in pass protection. On this play from Week 3, Baker Mayfield is able to step up in the pocket and move the chains on third down, and it starts with Tretter’s awareness against an interior stunt:

This play is a good example of how Tretter can still hold his own in one-on-one situations. While centers can rely on help from the guards in many pass protection schemes, when isolated against a defender Tretter can still stand his ground and anchor against most defenders in the league. On this play from Week 14, we get another glimpse of Tretter in a one-one-one situation:

Working from another clean pocket — thanks in part to Tretter — Mayfield is able to find Jarvis Landry to move the chains on third down.

This play from the season finale also stood out, mostly for Tretter’s technique and approach. The Bengals show pressure up front, mugging the A-Gap with a pair of linebackers. They execute what looks to be a “Rain” blitz, where both defenders attack at the snap, but they will read the center. If the center opens to you, you drop back in pass coverage. If the center opens away from you, you continue your blitz.

(For more on these blitz packages, I would recommend this meaty piece from Oliver Connolly and his tremendous website The Read Optional).

Here, the Bengals do just that. Tretter opens to his left, and that linebacker drops. But pay note to the technique he uses:

Tretter gets himself wide off the snap, knowing full well what the Bengals are doing. That gives him a chance to help the right guard if the blitzing linebacker tries to slice through that gap. As he does this, he looks for work to the left, recognizing the linebacker on that side is dropping into coverage.

It might not look like much, but to this washed-up quarterback a few months older than Brady, it looks like safety and security.

An asset in the running game

While pass protection is certainly a huge part of the game, what Tretter offers in the running game should not be ignored. During his time in Cleveland, particularly the past few seasons, he was part of one of the better run-blocking offensive lines in the league.

During the 2020 season, the Browns had one of the league’s best rushing attacks. Cleveland gained 2,374 yards on the ground — third most in the league — and averaged 148.4 yards per game, also third-most in the league. Even last year, when the Browns struggled, their running game remained a strength. As you can see from this graph, the Browns were one of just a handful of teams to have a positive Expected Points Added per Rushing Attempt, joining the Indianapolis Colts, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Seattle Seahawks and yes, the Buccaneers:

Tretter was a huge asset for Cleveland when they kept the football on the ground, regardless of design. Whether zone or power, Tretter found ways to get the job done.

Take this first example, an outside zone design against the Detroit Lions. Watch as Tretter uses a quick first step to get to the shaded nose tackle, and then rides him down the line of scrimmage, creating a cutback opportunity for Nick Chubb:

Tretter fires out to the left, looking to climb to the second level and take on the linebacker. But as he does so, he gets enough on the defensive tackle with his right arm that he makes the job easier for the right guard, trying to execute his reach block to get to the DT. Once the DT is secured, Tretter gets to the linebacker and creates a crease for Chubb to slice through for a gain of 13.

On this counter play against the New England Patriots, Tretter is tasked with getting Davon Godchaux — he of the big new contract — out of the way.

Consider the job done. Watch as Tretter twists the defender away from the hole with an impressive display of upper-body strength:

While the running game might be a secondary consideration in the minds of many, Tretter’s ability when the ball is kept on the ground is another reason why he was one of our top centers from this past season.

Adding that to what he offers in pass protection, one has to think that the Buccaneers are going to do everything they can to get him on the next flight to Tampa Bay.

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Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire