Under the Microscope: Chiefs Center Mitch Morse

Every season there are good players who get overlooked or are undervalued across the NFL. As we approach the regular season, Brandon Thorn will look at players who are not getting the appropriate level of attention from big media – or even smaller entities – and put them under the microscope to evaluate their skills and traits and see what others might not. First up is Kansas City Chiefs center Mitch Morse. 

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Objective

The offensive line is typically the most forgotten position group in terms of publicity, and it is also my favorite position group in football, so naturally much of my focus will be placed on them moving forward; increasing awareness for the big men up front will be an important goal for me with this series. I do, however, have experience evaluating most positions, and a diverse set of players will be incorporated as this idea continues to grow.

I will focus on 10 core traits for each position, with an emphasis on the positive traits shown by the player; I want to look at what players can do. In order for traits to be deemed “positive” they will need to be consistently shown throughout film study, not just during one game.

For this series, a minimum of six games – viewed and assessed in their entirety – will serve as a basis for each evaluation. Oftentimes I study more than six, as I prefer to gather as much information as I possibly can. An example of the broad context I aim to gather would involve evaluating multiple away games, home games, games against high and low level competition, bad weather, rivalry games, and games where the player is dealing with or coming off an injury. Personally, I believe, the more context built into my evaluation, the better the result becomes.

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Player Background

Mitch Morse was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2nd round (49th overall) of the 2015 draft after a career at the University of Missouri that saw him accumulate 14 starts at left tackle (2014), 18 at right tackle (2013), and 11 (2012) at center.

Morse had not played center since his redshirt sophomore season at Missouri (2012), but over the course of his rookie season in 2015, he made a seamless transition. This type of move inside usually occurs from tackle to guard, not tackle to center.

In order to make this transition successfully, there has to be a certain level of mental aptitude to account for the drastic increase in the speed of the game resulting from the more limited space between yourself and the defender. Decisions have to be made more rapidly, to say nothing of difference in the biomechanics of the center’s stance and subsequent movements changes.

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Stance Analysis

Rather than operating in a stance with the toes, tibia, and femur each at three 45 degree angles, the center is in a “closed” stance and more squared up with a defender. This changes the dynamic of the stance and the angles at which the game is played.

Against a shaded player (a player lined up at the shoulder of the center and not head on) this results in having to create space at the snap by pulling the hip of the catch leg into extension to create space, similar to a backwards lunge, rather than what tackles and guards do which involves more lateral / diagonal movement with the catch leg.

Here you can clearly see the “3 45s” of the catch leg, where the toes, tibia, and femur are each set at a 45-degree angle for Chicago Bears offensive tackle Kyle Long. Notice the amount of space between himself and the defender as well. Things become much more spacious the further outside you get on the offensive line.

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The foundation of an offensive lineman is their stance. All movement starts here and, if the stance is correct, wasted movement is minimized.

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Here you can see how a center (Morse) has to align himself in his stance, and how it is more closed off. The reduction in space between a tackle and a center is drastic.

In terms of Morse’s stance, you want to see his butt further up in the air to prevent the need to rise at the snap.

RichburgInsertYou can see the difference between Morse’s stance and that of arguably the best center in the NFL, Weston Richburg.

When a player is too low in his stance (at any position), and if his knees are at a 90-degree angle, the first movement is up, and vertical force is something that is useless as an offensive lineman. It is wasted movement.

These seemingly minor details could be the difference between a win and a loss against elite competition, and is something Morse could benefit from by tweaking his stance moving forward.

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2015

With each of the five positions on the offensive line, there is a distinct art to playing each one at a high level. Moving from tackle to center is a drastic change in mindset, mechanics, and technique. Morse did a good job adjusting. Add in the fact that he made the transition as a rookie and the feat becomes quite remarkable.

Last season the Chiefs offense ranked 6th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (127.8 YPG) despite their star RB Jamaal Charles going down with a season-ending knee injury in week 5. They also were tied for 2nd in the NFL in 10+ yard runs up the middle (19), 3rd in total first downs rushing up the middle (40), and tied for 1st in total rushing touchdowns (19).

Morse started 15 of 16 regular season games in 2015, missing week 13 with a concussion, and also missed both of the team’s playoff games with another concussion.

Alongside Morse was an unexpected rotation of offensive guards throughout the season. The group included OGs Ben Grubbs (7 starts), Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (13 starts), Zach Fulton (6 starts), and Jeff Allen (8 starts). Morse was the centerpiece, and most consistent interior offensive lineman on the team.

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2015 Film Breakdown

The following two clips are some of the positives that jump out in studying Morse. Both of these were from his first career start (week 1), against a high-level defense. Facing off against an overwhelming veteran force in Vince Wilfork with doses of Jared Crick and J.J. Watt was a tall task, and Morse performed admirably.

The first clip is a series of three plays that I will break down in detail.

Context play 1: 3rd and 13 in the first quarter.

The Chiefs are in a 3X1 set out of 11 personnel. They run a swing / screen to RB Jamaal Charles to the offense’s right, and Morse is facing a head-up nose tackle in Jared Crick, with two linebackers sugaring the B gaps showing blitz.

Watching this snap in real-time highlights Morse’s athleticism in space, body control, and coordination to be able to climb, move, and adjust on the fly. You also get to see Morse making calls at the line of scrimmage (LOS), an impressive skill for a rookie in his first career start.

This is a critical play early in the game, and Morse is responsible for getting in space and blocking downfield for the runner. He demonstrates a well-timed slap to the back of Crick’s shoulder-pads, pushing the defense up-field on his way to the second-level of the defense. He ignores the backside LB in pursuit, instead turning his body play-side in a sprint. His movements are calculated and under control in space, not rushing to the first defender but instead using tact to reach the first available unblocked man, notching a pancake in the process. The speed at which he reaches his assignment and mental processing to identify the proper block are all very impressive here, and are a good representation of where and how he wins on the field.

Context play 2: 2nd & 5, 1st quarter with KC up 7-0.

The Chiefs run another RB screen, this time out of 21 personnel.

Morse again showcases an effective rip / swim technique on the 2i technique (Vince Wilfork) to work around him on his way to the second level. The LB is rookie Benardrick McKinney, who gets sucked inside on the QB’s misdirection before reacting to the screen outside. Morse’s acceleration and decisiveness stand out as he executes a beautiful cut block in space. He is able to get low and unlock his hips to shoot across the LB’s legs, showcasing good technique. Merging high-level athleticism with this sort of refined technique is a rare sight to see in a rookie center’s first NFL start, especially at a new position.

Context play 3: 2nd & 1 in the 1st quarter.

Yet another screen, but this time to WR Albert Wilson for a gain of 13-yards.

Morse is uncovered at the snap with the Texans defense in their nickel front. On the surface this is a seemingly meaningless play, but with OL play this level of nuance is appreciated. Morse shows fluidness in his setup and delivery of this peel back to seal the backside with a slingshot technique to manipulate the defender further up-field. The patience and assurance of keeping his man out of the play makes for a solid play, one that shows a high level of competency.

Context: 1st & 10 in the 2nd quarter, the Chiefs are up 14-6 with the ball on Houston’s 22-yard line.

Kansas City is aligned in a stacked 11 personnel look, with Houston lined up in their nickel front with two 3-techniques, and two LBs sugaring the A gap. The offense runs a counter, and Morse’s responsibility is to block the backside LB, in this case Brian Cushing.

Morse identifies his man pre-snap, signaling to his teammates his responsibility. The LB quickly diagnoses the RB counter and hop steps play-side to get in on the action. Morse is not squared up initially, instead turned at an angle to entice the LB to shoot up-field.

Once he realizes the linebacker is too smart for his ploy, Morse’s quickness and body control come into play. The key here is the reactionary quickness and mental processing shown by Morse to react, attack, and square up the smaller / quicker LB. Successful blocks begin with the placement of the hips on the defender first and foremost, which centers the body up most effectively, and Morse does just that and whips his hips around to seal the alley. The result is a 10-yard gain in opponent territory, but the display of mental processing, coordination, and quickness from Morse are noteworthy.

Context: Week 2 at home against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos.

This was a Thursday night game, just 4 days after his first career start. It’s the 1st quarter, 1st & 15, with the offense lined up in 13 personnel versus the defense’s base 3-4 defense. The Chiefs run a play-action pass to a TE crosser over the middle of the field for a 24-yard gain.

Denver nose tackle Sylvester Williams is aligned as a shaded 0 technique over Morse, who has has him in pass protection. As LeCharles Bentley told me at his inaugural OL clinic regarding OL play, “Start bad, end bad.” In this case the inverse is true, as Morse starts brilliantly.

Morse explodes off the snap, getting a great start which allows the rest to fall into place. He beats Williams off the ball, covers his right-side A gap and stunts the defender’s momentum in the process. This forms a gorgeous alley for the QB to throw through, giving him clear vision on the crossing pattern. On the surface this routine pass-blocking play provided us with ample insight into Morse’s capability as an athlete.

As mentioned at the beginning of this breakdown, the center is in a closed stance. In terms of pass protecting this means his initial movement is at a different angle in order to create space. Since the defender is over the top of the center, creating space involves pulling the front-side leg backwards into extension, in what’s known as the drive-pull technique. This means that Morse must “pull” his right leg back as his first movement to create space in which to work. In order to accomplish this in such tight quarters a certain level of muscle activation and strength must be present in the glutes, hamstrings, and adductors to achieve the “drive” and “pull.”

Morse uses “P2P,” (pressure to pressure), known as fighting pressure with pressure to win this rep. Offensive line play is all about fighting pressure with pressure through the 8 angles of OL play. The drive-catch™ or drive-pull technique is a pillar of success in the trenches for offensive lineman. Offensive tackles and guards use the drive-catch™ technique to create space in pass protection, centers use the drive-pull technique. In the above clip, Morse’s first movement doesn’t start with his right side, but rather by delivering force into the ground with his left foot, then transferring this force through to his right side and pulling his right leg into extension (drive-pull). There is an intentionality behind this, and it must be done to consistently beat your man off the LOS, create space, and obtain the half-man relationship with the defender. You simply cannot “step” towards or away from a defender, which is effectively lunging and results in a loss of power. Force and intentionality is paramount here: Offensive line work is a dictatorship, not a democracy, and that kind of control and focused, authoritative action is perfectly on display here. You must never hesitate.

Let’s take a look at another perfect example of drive-catch™ – and an impressive level of deliberateness and explosiveness by Morse.

Context: 1st & goal on Denver’s 2-yard line, 9:23 left in the 1st quarter of a 0-0 game.

The offense is in 12 personnel with an empty backfield at the snap. Denver is lined up in a 3-3-5 look with a shaded NT (Williams) over Morse. This is the eighth play of the drive.

The drive-catch™ phase is executed brilliantly here by Morse. While he gets a little high, he is on top of the defender so quickly that he limits Williams’s ability to generate force. Earlier I mentioned that Morse needed to have his butt raised slightly to prevent the tendency to rise out of his stance and it showed up here, but he overcame it because of his footwork. If you can’t get your feet right, the hands don’t matter. Stated differently, the feet can overcome the hands, but the hands cannot overcome the feet.

Also, pay attention to Morse’s right foot, where everything begins. Forcefully and purposefully exploding off of that foot transfers a great deal of force through his body, resulting in a great jump off the ball and a half-man leverage relationship. From there his hips and elbows are married, and he is able to sustain, steer, and finish the block with good hip extension.

The best example of the drive-catch™ phase was against the best NT in the NFL (for my money) Brandon Williams in week 15 on an ACE block – a combo block between the C and play-side OG to the backside LB – with LG Jeff Allen:

Explosive power is a product of fighting force with force into the ground and winning the leverage battle. Morse isn’t nearly as big or as strong as Williams, but he tosses him aside here because of how he transferred force through the ground into his opponent.

Watch another example here in pass protection of how important marrying the hips and elbows is as part of a successful block:

Morse showcases his ability to bend at the hips and ankles here, which gives him the leverage advantage, while also firing his posterior chain-to-anchor. Because his hips and elbows are connected, Morse is able to transfer power from the ground up through his hands and into the defender. This is yet another good example of Morse’s ability to fight pressure with pressure.

Context: Week 3, Monday Night Football, on the road at Lambeau Field. Kansas City is down 14-0 in the 2nd quarter with 12:08 on the clock.

The offense is on Green Bay’s 9-yard line and they come out in 11 personnel out of a bunch shotgun look. The defense is in a 3-3-5 front. The result of the play is a touchdown run by Jamaal Charles.

Morse is up against NT B.J. Raji, who is aligned in a tilted shade over the top. The center has to cover Raji up so that the RG can successfully pull and lead. This is the third week in a row Morse has faced a stout run defending NT, and more of what we have already touched on is on further display here.

This is a base block for Morse, meaning he has to really concentrate on driving off his frontside leg and catching with the opposite leg with force in order to generate movement against the 337 pound defender.

Again, Morse demonstrates good force off the front-side foot, while staying leveraged into contact, and delivering a solid strike, which is a trend I’m noting in studying Morse’s film. His elbows are again aligned with his hips on contact, and he is able to pack a powerful strike, knocking Raji backwards in the process. Morse quickly notices the space he created from his strike and proceeds to eliminate the gap between himself and the defender, taking him out of the play and walling him off. The success of this block began from the ground, and succeeded by staying on top of the defender, and finishing.

Context: Week 4 on the road in Cincinnati, down 14-9 in the 2nd quarter with 3:06 to go.

The offense runs a split-zone out of 11 personnel.

Now we get to evaluate Morse on an outside zone run play to his left. He has a shaded NT to his right, and a 3 technique to his left.

Initially Morse has a clear A gap to his left, so he rapidly works to the next threat, which is the 3 tech. He delivers a strike to aid his left guard before stopping himself to seal the backside alley by walling off the collapsing shade. The result is a 24-yard gain.

This was a nuanced, veteran move made by a rookie in his fourth start, on the road no less. Understanding of the scheme, the track of the runner, and executing on that knowledge as seamlessly as he did here is a testament to his mental processing, which is one of his strongest traits.

Here we have another display of the athleticism, coordination, and balance that makes Morse special:

Getting out in space and to the second level are two areas where Morse excels. The center gets an excellent jump out of his stance by swinging his right arm back to help generate force before quickly recovering and getting through the hole with outstanding speed. Who says offensive lineman can’t be athletes too?

The most impressive part is what happens upon contact with the linebacker. Morse has his hips and elbows aligned prior to contact and displays excellent mobility from his hips, which results in explosion and pop. He stays with the block after generating movement, sealing the defender off, and giving the RB an alley to run through.

Here is another example of maintaining a strong base at the second level plus working inside out, clearing a hole for the runner:

Morse again shows off his athleticism in the form of balance and tact in space by working inside out on the linebacker, effectively sealing him off and creating an alley for the runner. Not only are his athletic gifts on display here, but taking proper aiming points in space on a linebacker is not easy to do, and yet he assures that he takes the defender out of the play, springing another big run for Jamaal Charles.

Below is one more example of getting to the second level, although this time working off of a double team. When offensive linemen face double teams, they either have the responsibility to overtake the defender or release off of the defender. Both require a keen sense of timing on top of generating movement to allow for room to maneuver.

Morse dips his shoulder into NT Brandon Williams, stunning him and securing the block before moving to the second level. Notice how he keeps his hips square to the next block and doesn’t overcommit to the first level; this is a fluid sequence because of his consistent base, leverage, and mental processing to stay one step ahead.

Context: Week 14. Morse’s first game back after missing week 13 with a concussion. 0-0 game, with 4:11 left in the 2nd quarter.

This is the 6th consecutive run play of a nine play drive that resulted in a touchdown. Keep in mind this is against a backup defensive lineman Ricardo Mathews.

One of the premier traits I look for when studying OL tape is play-strength and competitive toughness. This game, Morse took advantage of facing mostly backup defensive lineman by unleashing a level of intensity I had not seen up until this point. Flashing these traits while returning from a concussion is even more impressive. Additionally, LG Jeff Allen was the best guard Morse played with all season up front, and their chemistry really stood out in this game.

Here we have an ACE block which involves a C/OG combo to the second level. Morse blocks his man and beats him with his hips. Aligning those to the defender paired with excellent hip mobility to unlock and extend with power are defining traits of Morse’s.

Here we see more of the same:

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Projection

According to Ourlads.com, The Chiefs’ depth chart as of August 1st, 2016, has Morse pencilled in at center with rookie LG Parker Ehinger and RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif alongside him on the interior. This lineup is going to require Morse to continue his upward trajectory and be the leader of the interior. Based on last season’s performance I would expect Morse to exceed expectations. With an injury-free season, a few tweaks to his stance, increased functional strength, and added experience under his belt, it isn’t unreasonable to expect Pro Bowl consideration to come his way in 2016.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

2 thoughts on “Under the Microscope: Chiefs Center Mitch Morse

  1. Wow. Amazing breakdown. Well done. I have heard a lot of praise for Morse, but nobody I’ve seen has shown what he does well with such clear illustrations. It’s nice to really be able to appreciate what all that praise is for. Also appreciate your understanding of the technical aspects of O-line play. Leverage, angles, etc.

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