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Gino Gradkowski Working Through Growing Pains


Gino Gradkowski watched the tape of last Sunday's game and was disappointed with himself mostly because of one thing.

He was thinking too much instead of just playing confidently.

Gradkowski is literally at the center of the Ravens' struggling offensive line. He's the only new starter on a unit that was a big part of Baltimore's Super Bowl run, and thus someone many fans are pointing at for the sudden and unexpected problems.

"I'm just trying to progress every week, get better every week," Gradkowski said Wednesday. "There's still a lot of work to be done and improvement I need to make. I'll keep working at that every day."

Gradkowski, 24, is a fourth-round pick out of Delaware who is in just his second NFL season. He took over the starting job from 15-year veteran Matt Birk.

On Monday, Head Coach John Harbaugh said Gradkowski is holding up physically. But he said the Ravens are feeling the effects of having a less experienced center.

"It's a difference between Gino and Matt with the calls," Harbaugh said. "Gino's a really smart guy, but Matt had been on at it for a lot of years."

Gradkowski said identifying opposing defenses and making the appropriate calls has "been a challenge." He said opponents have thrown a lot of different alignments and pressures at him so far.

Regardless, one thing he can't be is hesitant. Harbaugh said Gradkowski is sometimes a little "tentative" with his footwork instead of coming off the ball and pushing defenders back. That's not creating enough room to get the ground game going.

"I've got to try to be more confident and more comfortable in there," Gradkowski said. "You just make the calls and you've got to go. Whether they're right or wrong, you've got to go. That's something I'll work on, something I need to get better with."

Former Ravens offensive lineman Wally Williams went through a similar process as Gradkowski. As an undrafted rookie free agent, Williams played in just two games as a rookie in 1993 then took over as Cleveland's full-time starting center seven games into the 1994 season.

Williams now watches the Ravens as a CBS analyst for WJZ and 105.7 The Fan, and has kept an eye on Gradkowski's development in the middle.

"It's a lot of responsibility Gino has, and he's going through some growing pains right now," Williams said.

Williams believes Gradkowski's confidence in making the calls is something that affects the rest of the offensive line.

Harbaugh said the Ravens need to be more physical inside with pass protection, yet Baltimore has two maulers at guard in Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele. So are the calls what's making them come off the ball slower?

"We see how important Matt Birk was to this team last year. When you have a veteran guy who has seen every defensive front and every blitz, he sniffs it out before he even puts his hand on the ball," Williams said.

"If you have that confidence as a guard or tackle that your center is going to put you in the right spot, it takes a lot of the pressure off the thinking process. It allows you to come off the ball a lot harder. You don't have to worry about mistakes."

Williams also questioned the offensive line's overall toughness. Running back Ray Rice pointed to a problem in intensity.

"What we're doing is getting a guy who wants it a little bit more on the other side," Rice said. "That's what we have to do; we have to fight that. We have to go out there and match the other team's intensity."

Gradkowski's fellow offensive linemen are taking their share of the blame for the line's struggles. Yanda was asked whether the problem has been about not being on the right assignments or whether players are losing one-on-one battles.

"Sometimes that happens [with the assignments], and sometimes guys need to make plays, and sometimes they may," he said. "Sometimes it's penalties that kill the whole drive. It's a combination of things."

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