ATLANTA — Even in the context of a teaching tool such as a preseason game, there was plenty that John Harbaugh would rather not have seen Thursday night.
From Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan being able to sit comfortably in the pocket to wide receiver Julio Jones running free in the Ravens' secondary to punter Sam Koch having to make a touchdown-saving tackle, the first quarter of the Ravens' eventual 31-17 victory gave the Ravens head coach numerous reasons for concern.
But the most unnerving sight had to be Falcons' linebackers bursting through the line of scrimmage and getting uncontested shots at quarterback Joe Flacco.
The fifth-year quarterback was sacked twice and hit several other times in four series, triggering even more skepticism about an offensive line that already had been one of the team's biggest question marks.
"We had a couple of run-throughs there that should have been picked up," Harbaugh said. "They weren't that complicated. That's something we're going to talk about and work on. That's what preseason is for. Young guys need reps and those young guys got a lot of reps."
With veteran center Matt Birk sidelined with an ailing knee and back and last season's regular left tackle Bryant McKinnie still working his way into shape, the Ravens started rookies Gino Gradkowski at center, Kelechi Osemele at right tackle , veteran Bobbie Williams at left guard, Marshal Yanda at right guard and Michael Oher at left tackle.
Yanda and Oher were steady and Osemele, the second-round pick out of Iowa State, was beaten a few times but mostly held his own. However, a couple of communication breakdowns between Gradkowski and Williams left Flacco vulnerable to big hits.
"Just a miscommunication. We'll get that fixed," said Gradkowski, a fourth-round pick out of Delaware. The rookie played three quarters Thursday and appeared more comfortable as the game wore on. "Any time there is a miscommunication, it's always the center's fault. I got to be better with that. I'm not really sure what happened. We'll have to watch the film but we'll get that fixed.
Flacco may have taken his biggest hit of the night when linebacker Akeem Dent got through, shrugged off a block attempt by running back Anthony Allen and unloaded on the Ravens' quarterback. Flacco looked a little shaken up, but he stayed in the game and completed an 11-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that salvaged an otherwise subpar performance from the first-team offense in a little over a quarter of work.
"These are huge reps for those guys," said Flacco, speaking about Gradkowski and Osemele. "They are going to be integral parts of what we do as an offense around here in future years. For these guys to get the amount of reps they were able to get [Thursday] was huge."
Birk hopes to return to practice in a couple of days to boost the line. The organization is excited about Gradkowski and teammates and coaches have raved about the rookie center's ability to pick up things and make adjustments.
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"It all starts with the center," Gradkowski said. "You really have to over-communicate especially with new guys on the line, guys working together for the first time. It's very important for these games to get together and get a good mesh."
McKinnie, who started all 18 games for the Ravens last year at left tackle, also could re-enter the first-team mix if the coaching staff decides that the team is better off with Oher back at right tackle, and Osemele as a top reserve.
Primarily facing the Falcons' second and third team defense, McKinnie really didn't get tested. However, he called the extensive playing time "very much needed."
Whether the Ravens' coaches saw enough from McKinnie to insert him back in the starting lineup remains to be seen. But right now, he feels the starting offensive lines needs the practice time to clean up Thursday's mistakes
"You need the chemistry," McKinnie said. "Right now, [the rookies] don't have the experience and they're still learning. With time, they're going to get better. But the rotation that they have right now in practice and everything is helping everybody. It's helping me come back and it's giving everybody a chance to learn."