It has been a rough transition for the Ravens at the center position, going from one of the best centers of his generation in Matt Birk to second-year player Gino Gradkowski. That says more about how underrated Birk may have been in his final couple of years in Baltimore than it does about Gradkowski’s struggles.
But quietly, perhaps because the Ravens have been losing, Gradkowski has been improving at the position over the past few weeks. And his performance Sunday was probably his best of the season.
Gradkowski not allow a single quarterback pressure in pass protection during Sunday's 23-20 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, according to Pro Football Focus. It was the second time in three weeks that Gradkowski did not allow a pressure, and he has only been beaten for one sack in the past six weeks.
Gradkowski was also very good as a run blocker Sunday.
According to Pro Football Focus, 123 of running back Ray Rice's season-high 131 rushing yards came when he ran through a hole on either side of Gradkowski. Rice averaged 7.7 yards on those 16 carries. And in the first quarter, Gradkowski helped open up a huge hole on Rice’s 47-yard run, which was his longest run of the season.
The two guards, A.Q. Shipley and Marshal Yanda, also deserve credit for helping open up inside running lanes on many plays -- yes, some of them even on zone runs.
Gradkowski's biggest mistake came on the final drive of regulation, when he skidded a shotgun snap to quarterback Joe Flacco on 3rd and Goal.
Still, it was a promising performance by Gradkowski and the embattled offensive line. The Ravens as a team rushed for a season-high 174 rushing yards, and outside of a couple of missed blocks by left tackle Eugene Monroe, the offensive line kept Flacco as clean as one could possibly hope in such a mud bath of a football game.
Gradkowski, who has yet to miss a snap this season, would probably admit that he still has a lot more to learn and room to grow physically. And it is too soon to know if he can be the long-term replacement for Birk at center. But despite the loss, Sunday's game was another positive performance for Gradkowski to build on, and for the offensive line as a unit.