Ravens center Gino Gradkowski still growing into Matt Birk's 'big shoes'

Second-year player has had ups and downs this season, and position could be up for graps in 2014

  • Ravens center Gino Gradkowski, shown during a game at Pittsburgh in October, has started every game this season, his second in the NFL.
Ravens center Gino Gradkowski, shown during a game at Pittsburgh… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
December 27, 2013|By Aaron Wilson | The Baltimore Sun

The continuing education of Ravens center Gino Gradkowski has involved everything from grappling with massive Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to making critical, last-second line calls to adjusting blocking assignments.

Ever since six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk retired in February, Gradkowski has been learning on the job and experiencing growing pains while trying to hold his own against some of the biggest, most talented defensive linemen in the NFL.

The center position demands a lot: intellect, technique and brute strength. Although typically overmatched in terms of size, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Gradkowski has shown gradual signs of improvement and has started every game heading into the Ravens' regular-season finale Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I think Gino's gotten better, like the rest of the offensive line, as the season's gone on," said Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman and current analyst for SiriusXM NFL Radio. "I think early on, it was big shoes for him to fill when Matt Birk retired. There's definitely some more room for improvement, and he'd probably be the first one to tell you that. Gino's got to get by more on athleticism because he's not one of the more powerful guys and he's not going to knock people back. I feel like his initial quickness and technique are his strengths.

"I know people will try to push the pocket against him and feel like his lack of girth is his vulnerability. Sometimes, you can figure out technique and put yourself in better position. It's really more about hand placement. He can try to get a little stronger, and he'll be better with a year's worth of games under his belt."

Every game has provided a challenge for Gradkowski as he tries to break in at one of the most difficult positions in the league. After trying to learn as much as possible during his one-year apprenticeship under Birk last season, Gradkowski now has most of the same responsibilities — with significantly less experience to draw upon.

"Matt was a 15-year veteran who had seen it all and was one of the smartest centers to play the position," Gradkowski said. "I'm just trying to do my best, and that's all I'm really worried about. I definitely feel more comfortable week by week. It's hard, but you learn from your mistakes.

"You've got to realize it's a process and you've got to keep on working hard and keep getting better. I think, definitely, the experience has helped me grow as a player and helped me grow on and off the field."

It's been a season of ups and downs for Gradkowski, who impressed against Suh two games ago as he he helped limit the Pro Bowler to three tackles.

During the Ravens' 41-7 loss to the New England Patriots last Sunday, though, Gradkowski got stood up by defensive lineman Sealver Siliga and shoved backward as running back Ray Rice was stuffed for no gain on a third-quarter fourth-and-1 run at the Patriots' 4-yard line. With the outcome of the game already decided in the fourth quarter, Gradkowski delivered an errant shotgun snap to backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor that was recovered for a touchdown by defensive end Chandler Jones.

As a first-year starting center, Gradkowski has been tested every week by opposing defenses hoping to identify a weak link. Pro Football Focus rates Gradkowski as the second worst among qualifying Ravens linemen by a narrow margin, ahead of only left guard A.Q. Shipley, a converted center whom Gradkowski beat out during training camp.

One of Gradkowski's biggest issues has been creating enough space inside. It's difficult for him to drive-block larger interior defensive linemen, as he frequently needs to cut them off at an angle to create holes. The Ravens rank just 28th in rushing offense.

"Every week, there's a new challenge for him," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "Sometimes he's faced with a 345-pound nose guard standing right in front of him. The next week, it may be a 'two-high' [technique] that slants down over his right shoulder, different sort of pass rushers. Now he's had an opportunity to go through and see a number of different styles, a number of different techniques and things of that nature. How to handle all of the different looks that they give you, the movements, the disguise — it's a complicated scene in there for a young guy to be able to handle all those things, get the offense set, in both run and pass, and then function as well, in terms of his technique.

"The experience is invaluable for him. I think you're just seeing him scratch the surface right now. You'll see him take off, and pretty soon, everything slows down for him. He's a very smart guy and he works at it. I just see him getting better and better and better. He's challenged every week, which is a good thing."

Gradkowski ran the 40-yard dash in 5.2 seconds and bench-pressed 225 pounds 29 times entering the NFL, both impressive workout numbers.

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