By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun
8:00 AM EDT, October 1, 2013
While Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged Monday that the team is “feeling” the difference with the line calls now that first-year starter Gino Gradkowski is starting at center and not the retired Matt Birk, that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the coaching staff is singling Gradkowski out for the offensive line’s struggles. In fact, Harbaugh praised how Gradkowski has held up physically, which was the big question mark given that he’s considered undersized for his position. The reality is there’s been some good and some bad for Gradkowski, but the Ravens anticipated that. They knew he’d experience some growing pains. What they didn’t anticipate was so much inconsistent play from the other returning starters after the offensive line played so well during last year’s postseason run.
Pro Football Focus gives Gradkowski the lowest grade among the Ravens' offensive linemen and credits him for allowing 10 quarterback hurries and two sacks in four games. He’s also been called for one penalty. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is the second worst according to the ratings as he’s allowed 11 hurries, one sack and committed two 15-yard penalties. He’s struggled the most in run blocking. Left guard Kelechi Osemele’s issues have been a bit mystifying. Expected by some pundits to develop into a Pro Bowl player this year, Osemele has been called for a team-high four penalties while permitting seven hurries and four quarterback hits. Right tackle Michael Oher, who got a positive rating for his performance against the Buffalo Bills, has allowed three sacks, tying reserve Rick Wagner for the most on the team. Right guard Marshal Yanda is the only Ravens’ offensive lineman to get a positive rating from Pro Football Focus though he hasn’t graded out as highly as he did last year.
The point is that this isn’t an issue with just one offensive lineman nor is it all the fault of run game coordinator Juan Castillo who has yet to get this fixed. Harbaugh made it clear that all five linemen need to play better and the coaches need to game-plan better as well. And beyond that, the Ravens’ running backs need to be better, both in their pass protection and in finding holes. If the fact that Joe Flacco dropped back to pass on 31 straight plays against the Bills and Harbaugh defended that decision a day later doesn’t serve as a wakeup call to the key components of the Ravens’ running game, I’m not sure what will.
Harbaugh said Monday that wide receiver Deonte Thompson was going through the concussion protocol but he had no symptoms as of Monday morning. If he continues to feel good, that could be a big development for the Ravens. I tweeted about this Sunday, but it’s worth repeating that the Ravens’ offense looked the most dangerous it has looked all season with Torrey Smith and Thompson out wide, and Marlon Brown in the slot. You are talking about probably three of the fastest players on the team and their speed appeared to open things up a bit.
Speaking of wide receivers, it will be interesting to see how things shake out when Jacoby Jones returns from a knee injury. Jones will return to practice this week, and while it may be a stretch to expect him to be out there Sunday in Miami, he is getting closer. But how will he be used? Brown has three touchdowns in four games and continues to get better, so limiting his role would be hard to justify. Thompson gave a glimpse of what he’s capable of when healthy on Sunday. Tandon Doss has helped the Ravens’ return game. And I still haven’t gotten to veteran Brandon Stokley, who is dealing with a groin strain. The Ravens have six receivers, but it’s hard to foresee them dressing that many on game day.
I understand that fans care mostly -- or should I say exclusively? -- about what happens on game day and how a certain player performs so now may not be a good time to bring this up. However, as poorly as he played Sunday in throwing five interceptions, Joe Flacco erased any lingering doubt -- if there was any -- about who is the leader of the team. First, he didn’t hesitate to defend his teammates and himself following former teammate Ray Lewis’ questioning of the leadership after the party bus incident. Other players claimed that Lewis was taken out of context, which was impossible given the circumstances, or the media was making much ado about nothing. There is obviously some truth to the latter. Flacco, though, handled it adeptly, saying that “Ray knows better” and maintaining that one off-the-field incident shouldn’t be used as a referendum on the team’s leadership situation. With his comments, he stuck up for his teammates and himself, while also avoiding a verbal spat with a friend and beloved sports figure in Baltimore. Four days later, he stood at the podium for about 10 minutes following arguably the worst day of his career and he shouldered the blame for the loss to the Bills. He didn’t bring up the dropped passes, the nonexistent running game or the poor offensive line play. Flacco needs to play much better than he did Sunday for the Ravens to win, but I’m not sure he could have handled the pre- and post-game stuff during that five-day span any better. The same guy who was once criticized for being boring and lacking charisma has become one of the most interesting and thoughtful interviews on the team.
Second-year safety Christian Thompson is now eligible for reinstatement after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Thompson was a fourth-round pick last year and the Ravens hate giving up on their selections so early. But with the recent addition of safety and special teams standout Jeromy Miles, who Harbaugh said should be good to go this week, it’s unclear where Thompson fits. He has yet to distinguish himself in practices or games and the Ravens already have five other safeties on the active roster: Matt Elam, James Ihedigbo, Michael Huff, Anthony Levine and Miles, and two more on the practice squad in Brynden Trawick and Omar Brown.
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