Last Thursday, for the first time since the 2008 season, someone not named Matt Birk started for the Ravens at center. Gino Gradkowski, a second-year player out of small-school Delaware, made his first NFL start there.
To the novice eye -- this writer included -- evaluating offensive line play can be a difficult endeavor, especially at center, where that player is in the middle of the mess and sometimes ends up blocking no one in particular.
When I went back and watched the game again, I saw many plays when Gradkowski held his ground against big Denver Broncos defensive linemen Kevin Vickerson and Sylvester Williams. There were also a few plays when Gradkowski got shoved back into quarterback Joe Flacco's lap. He also appeared to get his job done on one 3rd-and-1 run up the gut, but running back Ray Rice wasn't able to squeeze through the hole he opened.
According to Pro Football Focus, Gradkowski allowed three quarterback hurries, but no hits or sacks. For comparison sake, Birk allowed fewer than two pressures per game last season, but the Ravens did ask Gradkowski and his fellow linemen to pass protect more than 60 times, the equivalent of a couple of games, in Thursday's 49-27 loss in Denver.
Pro Football Focus gave him negative grades in both pass blocking and run blocking, but he was not alone in that regard, as right guard Marshal Yanda was the only Ravens lineman with a positive overall grade when they graded the game.
Gradkowski was also flagged for unnecessary roughness after an incomplete pass on third down in the third quarter, but besides 10 yards of field position, it wasn't a significant play.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh seemed pretty pleased with how Gradkowski did against the Broncos defense in his first start.
"Gino did a good job," he said. "The thing about Gino -- and he and I talked about this -- that people are going to question is [that] he's a 300-pound guy, which we all say is pretty darn big, and there are a lot of centers who aren't as big as he is. But, you say, 'Is he going to hold up physically against the bigger defensive linemen?' He's going to have a challenge again this week. He did that really well. Physically, he did a good job."
As for the important mental side of the position -- in the Ravens offense, the center is responsible for calling out the blocking assignments -- Harbaugh said there is room for improvement.
"Running the show, he did a good job, [but] he could do better with that," he said of Gradkowski, who beat out A.Q. Shipley to start. "For the first time out against that defense, it was pretty good. There is a lot that he can improve on and get better at."
This week's physical challenge, the one that Harbaugh alluded to, will be against massive Cleveland Browns nose tackle Phil Taylor. The Broncos used a lot of 4-3 fronts and oftentimes did not have a defender lined up directly over Gradkowski. That will change against the Browns, who stick Taylor over the center in their 3-4 fronts. It will be a nice test in his second career start.