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Film review: Austin Blythe makes up for lack of size with IQ and technique

Let’s see what the Chiefs have in their new center.

Los Angeles Rams v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs have made another move to bolster their interior offensive line by signing a center named Austin.

No... not former starter Austin Reiter — whom the Chiefs had been reported to be interested in re-signing — but former Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman Austin Blythe. The Chiefs brought Blythe in on a one-year deal worth up to $1.75 million based on his playing time and team performance. This was the final position along the interior offensive line that hadn’t been yet addressed in free agency.

Blythe has started 47 of the last 48 games for the Rams, spending 2020 as the starting center. Much like previous offseason addition Joe Thuney, he has been quite durable throughout his NFL career. Kyle Long notwithstanding, this is something the Chiefs have appeared to emphasize a little on the offensive line during free agency. And after the 2020 season — in which only one Week 1 starter made it to the Super Bowl — who could blame them?

Let’s take a look at Blythe’s film.

Austin Blythe

Run blocking

The stronger part of Blythe’s game comes in in supporting the run. The Rams’ offensive system was certainly friendly to him, as it included a lot of wide runs that often left him uncovered, allowing him to excel as a second-level blocker.

He may not be the most explosive (or the most flexible) center in the NFL — but he plays quick. He’s fast to move after he snaps the football and has minimal wasted motion while working up through his assignments.

On this outside zone run, his IQ and technique are on display. He gets out of his stance with a strong zone step so the nose tackle can’t work across his face — but at the same time, also makes sure he is working upfield. This allows him to get a good punch on the nose tackle so his teammate can pick him up — and then he’s off to chase the linebacker. Blythe is quick to read the linebacker’s leverage, taking a direct angle; he knows he will have to kick the linebacker outside.

These are Blythe’s strengths as a run blocker: his IQ and his blocking angles when working up to the second level. While isn’t the most agile blocker in space, he gets on top of defenders so quickly that they rarely have a chance to react and get past him. On the line of scrimmage, he doesn’t always have the power to torque players out of a gap — or the speed to cross a defender — but he’s extremely quick off the snap and is able to identify leverage early in the rep.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. In big moments, Blythe’s lack of mass and length can be exposed.

While Blythe tends to make good contact early in a rep (and quickly on the second level), his lack of reach (he has 30.25-inch arms) routinely shows up in his inability to sustain blocks. Against defensive tackles or linebackers, he is easily pressed out of a defender’s frame and disengaged, allowing them to get back into the play.

As we see in the second play, Blythe is in a good position — and initially, has the block framed well. But as the play develops, he is unable to generate movement or create a running lane. He ends up allowing the defender to shed him and assist in the tackle.

But while he lacks NFL mass and length, he displays above-average athleticism. He does a good job maintaining his balance on the move — and has the ability to out-pace a defender directly off the snap. But then his limitations come into play. Attempting longer reach blocks often results in simply trying to run defenders down the line of scrimmage; he doesn’t have the length and power to stop them.

Still, Blythe does present himself as a better run-blocking center than the Chiefs had in 2020. While he has limitations, his attention to detail — and his ability to play quickly — will give him more consistency as a run blocker than we saw last season.

Pass blocking

This area of Blythe’s game isn’t quite as strong as his run blocking — but I do think the gap has been overblown. As in the running game, the Rams’ system — with a lot of motion and play-action rollouts — asked little of him in pass protection.

You’d expect a center of Blythe’s size to be pushed around in pass protection — much like we saw with the Chiefs last year — but that really isn’t the case. While he doesn’t have the length or power to present a brick wall against defensive tackles, he still handles direct power very well. He consistently skips his feet back to maintain his base and leverage while utilizing his hands to ever-so-slightly redirect the defender’s momentum.

In this play, he gives up ground on the initial contact, but gets his hands set high and low while maintaining his base. This allows him to push the defensive tackle slightly outside — but you can see, he also uses his inside hand to start pulling down on the defender, preventing the rusher from fully attacking him.

This subtle hand usage — along with the attention to detail around his base — allow him to routinely withstand power rushes from bigger players.

In pass protection, Blythe’s hands are the star of the show.

Here, he’s working against new Chiefs defensive tackle Jarran Reed — and his hand-fighting is practically a clinic. His independent hand usage is outstanding; he’s able to punch and latch with one hand and repeatedly hand-replace with the other.

Blythe doesn’t have the reach to simply punch a defender and lock them into place — but he is able to play with his hands operating independently on completely different levels, allowing him to generate unexpected leverage and survive against much bigger defenders. This is how he is able to compensate for his lack of length and top-end athleticism.

Still, long, powerful defenders can easily get first contact on Blythe, putting him into disadvantageous positions. He’s very competent with his hands and can maintain his balance — but given the lack of some physical traits, there is only so much he can do. There are plays where his lack of length becomes too much to overcome; he ends up on skates and is easily moved out of the way. When defenders can keep him out of their chest, he struggles to keep them at bay.

With Blythe’s average lateral agility, it can become even more difficult for him in pass protection. He’s simply not able to mirror a rusher, keeping them framed and forcing them into his chest. Quicker rushers will always present a challenge for Blythe — especially if it’s a longer-developing passing concept.

Takeaway

The Chiefs made a savvy free-agent move by bringing Blythe in to compete to be the team’s starting center. While he isn’t an NFL superstar, he is a competent starter. He’s roughly the same caliber of player the Chiefs had in Austin Reiter — but he does bring a different style to the offensive interior.

Blythe is a more advanced run blocker who shows high-end technique, IQ and quality second-level blocking. In the way they all play the game, he’ll fit nearly perfectly between Joe Thuney and either Laurent Duvernay-Tardif or Kyle Long. As a pass protector, he will compete and and hold a more stout pocket than the Chiefs often got last season — but his ability to hold up one-on-one will still make the middle of the offensive line a questionable spot.

But perhaps most importantly, this move allows the Chiefs flexibility. They won’t be forced into drafting a starting center or putting third-year player Nick Allegretti into that role without competition. For anyone to unseat Blythe, they will have to show they are at least an average NFL starter.