EARLY BIRD: Gradkowski will be center of attention Sunday

EARLY BIRD: Gradkowski will be center of attention Sunday
November 22, 2013, 7:00 am
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Harbaugh, Ravens prepare to face familiar foes vs. Jets

(Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

EARLY BIRD: Waking up with the Ravens, as they try to prepare for a pivotal game against the Jets.

Two-minute topic: Can center Gino Gradkowski handle the challenge of facing the Jets’ formidable defensive front?

OWINGS MILLS – Replacing the retired Matt Birk hasn’t been easy for Gradkowski. His play has been heavily scrutinized as a first-year starter. Comes with the territory, especially with the offensive line having issues, and the Ravens sitting at 4-6.

However, Gradkowski’s game is stepping up. Many of Ray Rice’s 131 rushing yards Sunday came on plays where Gradkowski threw a key block. Gradkowski has also been more solid in pass protection.

Now Gradkowski faces another challenge, dealing with the defensive line of the Jets, who have the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense against the run. Their front can be dominant, featuring Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, nose tackle Damon Harrison, and rush outside linebacker Quinton Coples.

Then there is Jets coach Rex Ryan, a master of dialing up various blitzes. As the center responsible for calling pass protection, Gradkowski will be under pressure to recognize what Ryan calls, and to make the proper adjustments. Gradkowski is looking forward to the challenge. In some ways, this game will be a measuring stick for him.

“It’s a great defense,” Gradkowski said. “I respect Rex Ryan defenses. I’m very excited for the opportunity to play against it. They’ve got some great personnel and some great schemes.”

While Gradkowski played well against the Bears, he also made a glaring error late in regulation. On third-and-goal from the three-yard line, Gradkowski made a low snap to Joe Flacco that forced him to bend over to control it. By the time Flacco controlled the ball and looked downfield it was too late to hit Torrey Smith, who had broken free in the end zone seconds earlier. With Smith covered, Flacco threw an incomplete pass, the Ravens settled for a game-tying field goal, and eventually lost in overtime.

Field conditions were terrible Sunday in Chicago. But Gradkowski made no excuses.

“A couple of times I felt the ball getting stuck a little bit, getting stuck in a hole or in the mud,” Gradkowski said. “That one play, I didn’t feel a hole, but the ball was in one. At that critical point in the game, I need to get that snap done.”

The Ravens face another critical game Sunday. They are counting on Gradkowski to get the job done.

Morning thought: "They have very, very good personnel up front. They're big, they're physical, and they hit and run with the best of them." - Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, talking about the Jets defensive line.

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