BALTIMORE - One of the tightest and most interesting positional battles during the Baltimore Ravens' training camp has been at center, where second-year player Gino Gradkowski and offseason acquisistion A.Q Shipley are vying to replace the retired Matt Birk.
Shipley got the start on Thursday in the the Ravens' preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons at M&T Bank Stadium.
He didn't exactly help his cause.
Shipley was flagged for an illegal hands to the face penalty on the Ravens' first play from scrimmage, essentially ending his new team's first drive before it ever even started with the 15-yard personal foul. Shipley later was whistled for a false start.
He also missed a block against Jonathan Babineaux on a first quarter running play, allowing Babineaux to tackle Ray Rice for a five-yard loss.
Shipley was part of a rough performance, overall, by the offensive line. The Ravens, using their starters throughout the first half, managed only 13 rushing yards on 10 carries. Rice picked up only 10 yards on eight carries.
The line did, however, protect quarterback Joe Flacco, who was not sacked and had enough time to complete seven of nine passes for 118 yards and a touchdown.
"The biggest thing about tonight is that penalties really set us back and kept us from getting into a rhythm," said wide receiver Torrey Smith, who had two catches, including a 77-yard touchdown.
Gradkowski, who started last week's preseason opener at Tampa Bay, replaced Shipley at the beginning of the second half.
STARTING NODS: Another positional battle has been between veteran James Ihedigbo and rookie Matt Elam for the starting strong safety spot. While Elam, a first-round draft pick from Florida, was widely expected to win the job, Ihedigbo isn't making it easy.
Ihedigbo has been working a lot with the first-team defense during camp and he got the start in Thursday night's game against the Falcons, just as he did last week in the Ravens' preseason opener at Tampa Bay.
Ihedigbo was active and made three tackles during his action in the first half, although he did have the unneccessary roughness penalty.
Elam came off the bench and made five tackles in the first half, including one for a loss.
Two other starting assignments were based on an adjustment. When the Falcons came out in a three-wide receiver set on their first offensive series, the Ravens went with rookie Arthur Brown over Josh Bynes at inside linebacker and with offseason acquisition Elvis Dumervil over second-year man Courtney Upshaw at outside linebacker.
It appears Upshaw will be utilized more on expected running plays while former Pro Bowl pass rusher Dumervil will see most of his time in passing situations.
WHERE'S THE D?: After overhauling their defense in the offseason, adding the likes of Dumervil, safety Mike Huff, linebacker Daryl Smith and defensive lineman Chris Canty, many considered the Ravens to be more athletic and possibly improved on that side of the ball.
But the unit had a rough time against the Falcons, particularly when standouts Matt Ryan, Steven Jackson and Julio Jones were in the game.
Atlanta gained 255 yards in the first half, mostly against the Ravens' first-team defense, converting 16 first downs.
Jackson rumbled eight times for 42 yards, Ryan completed eight of 15 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown - finding Jones three times for 55 yards and the score, all when he was matched up against Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith - and second quarterback Dominique Davis even completed his first six throws for 82 yards.
"This was good for us - a little humble pie," linebacker Terrell Suggs said.
BACK-UP PLAN: While the Ravens' first-tea offense struggled in the first half, the back-ups and the roster-spot hopefuls put up some decent numbers against Atlanta's second- and third-stringers after halftime.
Rookie Aaron Mellette, a seventh-round pick out of Elon, caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor in the third quarter and Tandon Doss caught a five-yard TD from Taylor in the fourth quarter.
Rookie tight end Matt Furstenburg, out of Maryland, caught two passes for 23 yards.
The running game never did get going, however.
SCRATCHES: Numerous Ravens were held out of Thursday's game because of injury issues, including running back Bernard Pierce, who suffered a bruised knee in the preseason opener.
Also out were cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Chris Johnson, linebacker Jameel McClain, defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, guard Marshal Yanda, center Ryan Jensen, wide receiver Deonte Thompson, tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, and defensive end Marcus Spears. Newly signed tight end Dallas Clark didn't play, either.
DANCING MACHINE: In the first-ever game at M&T Bank Stadium without retired linebacker Ray Lewis on the roster, receiver Jacoby Jones did a brief dance during introductions. Jones spent part of his offseason competing on "Dancing With The Stars."
HAPPY RETURNS: Jones, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown during the Super Bowl six months ago, has not returned any kicks yet this preseason. David Reed handled the kickoff returns in the first half, averaging 31.3 yards on three attempts.
The injured Thompson is also a candidate to return kickoffs. The Falcons first three punts were handled by Tandon Doss, Bobby Rainey and Asa Jackson.
FLAGGED AGAIN: Cornerback Chykie Brown was called for illegal contact on a second-and-14, giving the Falcons an automatic first down on their first drive. He also committed two penalties last week against the Buccaneers.
NOTABLE: A moment of silence was held for former Baltimore Colts defensive lineman and Hall of Famer Artie Donovan, who died last week ... Rookie defensive lineman Brandon Williams went down in the fourth quarter and had to be assisted off the field, but he was soon walking on the sideline ... The Ravens improved to 42-27 all-time in the preseason, including 15-7 under John Harbaugh.