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.
Gradkowski was an All-American at Delaware, but the 2012 fourth-round draft pick now is often outweighed by anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds along the line. That includes 335-pound Cleveland Browns nose tackle Phil Taylor, who had a combined two tackles in two starts lining up across from Gradkowski this season.
"I don't think it was ever a size issue," Gradkowski said. "I think I held my own against some of the stronger guys, and we faced a lot of great defensive lines this year. It's been a fun experience for me.
"It's definitely a difficult position, especially with the type of athletes that are in this league. It's challenging mentally. Once you actually get out there and see the looks and get the game experience, I think it helps a ton."
Gradkowski has proved durable, and practiced all week despite a minor right knee injury. He faces another difficult game against an aggressive Bengals defense, which ranks fifth overall in the NFL and has 41 sacks this season.
Teammates have praised Gradkowski for his diligent preparation and willingness to take advice.
"Gino takes the right approach," right guard Marshal Yanda said. "He's a hardworking guy, he's a smart guy. He has definitely gotten better as the weeks went on. He's doing a good job. He's a fighter out there every day.
"It's not all about size. That isn't a limiting factor. As long as you have good technique and fundamentals, you can get the job done."
Still, the Ravens will have decisions to make in the offseason about Gradkowski. Gradkowski most likely will compete with Shipley and third-string center Ryan Jensen, a 6-foot-4, 318-pound sixth-round draft pick from Colorado State-Pueblo regarded as a good developmental prospect.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the Ravens had him and A.Q. compete for that job again in training camp next year," Tucker said. "Gino has gotten better, but you don't figure out everything about how to play center overnight at this level."
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