AFC North: Gino Gradkowski

PITTSBURGH -- The selflessness his father showed when he passed up a football scholarship to take care of his family extended to his four children, two of whom now play in the NFL.

The spirit his mother instilled in Bruce Gradkowski when she told him skeptics could never measure the size of his heart has also helped the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback make a living for almost a decade in the NFL.

That is why on a day when it is especially fitting to count your blessings "Little Bru" is especially thankful for his parents, Bruce and Debbie Gradkowski.

"They sacrificed a lot for us growing up to get to where we are today," said Gradkowski, a Pittsburgh native who once broke Dan Marino's state prep record for touchdown passes in a season, and is now in his second season backing up Ben Roethlisberger. "It’s a true blessing."

[+] EnlargeBruce Gradkowski
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBruce Gradkowski on Thanksgiving: "You might be stressed out in your daily activity and job, but overall it is about being thankful for what we are blessed with ..."
Thanksgiving dinner won’t be lacking for bodies at the Gradkowskis given the size of the extended family, though the biggest one of all will be missing.

Gino Gradkowski, won’t be able to make it back to Pittsburgh for the holiday since the Ravens offensive lineman is in Baltimore preparing for his team’s next game.

But he is a big reason why Bruce and Debbie Gradkowski have plenty to be thankful for today as well.

All four of their children are doing well, including the sisters who are book-ended by the football-playing brothers.

Brittney Kuhn juggles teaching in the West Allegheny school district with raising three kids. Deanna Sherwood, meanwhile, is expecting her first child and is the head men's wear designer for Abercrombie & Fitch in Columbus, Ohio.

"It’s pretty cool," said Gradkowski, the oldest of the four siblings. "We’re all successful in our own ways, and I think that’s because of our parents, giving us that opportunity, laying a foundation or us and giving the path to go do it."

Indeed Bruce Sr., a longtime production manager at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Debbie, a dental assistant, put all four of their kids through private school.

If money was ever tight the kids never knew about it.

Bruce Jr. said his father would never hear of him getting a job growing up, as he was encouraged to focus on academics and athletics.

"Little Bru" found out early, however, that such an edict did not come with a free pass.

As a third-grader he got selected to play basketball for the fourth-grade team, and it went to his head a little. After his grades slipped and he mouthed off to a teacher, Gradkowski’s parents pulled him off the team for the rest of the season.

The lesson: always stay grounded and humble.

Bruce has never forogotten that, and he and Gino have each lived out the football dream for the father who saw his cut short.

The elder Bruce Gradkowski and his brother each starred in football in high school, and both were offered a scholarship to Indiana State. When their father became ill "Big Bru" told his brother, who was younger by a year, to go to school and that he would stay home and take care of the family.

That, his oldest son, is just one example of how he has always put others ahead of himself.

"If he has a dollar in his pocket it’s going to someone else," Bruce Gradkowski said of his father.

That is what makes the ninth-year NFL veteran especially appreciative of days like these, when he can spend time with his family, which includes his wide, Miranda, and daughter, Liliana.

"We have a lot to be thankful for, and that’s the one thing you have to remember during Thanksgiving," Gradkowski said. "You might be stressed out in your daily activity and job, but overall it is about being thankful for what we are blessed with and to be close to family, and take advantage of that."
Veteran center Jeremy Zuttah went from being the odd man out in Tampa Bay to becoming one of the most welcomed additions on the Baltimore Ravens.

Zuttah was traded to the Ravens for a 2015 fifth-round draft pick in March after the Buccaneers signed his replacement, Evan Dietrich-Smith, in free agency. Through the first two weeks of offseason practices, Zuttah has been among the more impressive players on the field.

Zuttah
Zuttah's athleticism and intelligence significantly boosts the weakest position on the team last season. Gino Gradkowski, a first-year starter, ranked last among centers in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Ravens don't expect Zuttah to a be a Pro Bowl center. They're not envisioning a dominant one, either. What they need is someone who is solid in the middle of the offensive line, which was lacking last season with Gradkowski.

Zuttah, who was No. 22 on PFF's center rankings, could end up being better than he was in Tampa Bay because Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme suits his strengths. While no one knows how he'll hold up physically until the pads come on at training camp, Zuttah has stood out for his quickness and his ability to get to the second level.

Offensive tackle Eugene Monroe said Zuttah has fit in "perfectly."

"You’ve got to be able to move, you’ve got to be able to run to do what we do," Monroe said. "He excels at that."

Zuttah, 27, has started 76 games in his six-year career, although only 31 came at center. Last season was his first full one as a starting center.

The Ravens, though, have been impressed with how Zuttah has carried himself at that position.

"Jeremy Zuttah is doing a great job," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's smart, really smart, really mature, goes about his business in a mature way. I'm just very impressed with how smart he is."

The Ravens signed Zuttah to a five-year, $18 million contract upon trading for him. The hope is Zuttah is a long-term solution like Matt Birk, who started for the Ravens for four seasons (2009-12).

If Zuttah works out, they are getting a good value for a starting center (an average salary of $3.6 million). If he isn't as much of an upgrade as expected, the Ravens can part ways with him after the 2015 season.

"He’s taking command of what we’re doing on the O-line and doing his best to give us the direction that he has to," Monroe said. "And he’s going to grind. He’s going to work. So, I’m glad to have him.”
It's time to click open this weekend's Baltimore Ravens mailbag ...

.

Remember to follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.
The Baltimore Ravens have traded back in the first round in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Could they do it again in 2014?

The Ravens will likely have the opportunity to do so. In the past, teams have wanted to trade up in the draft because of quarterbacks. This year, teams will be looking to move up to the Ravens' No. 17 spot for a wide receiver, especially if LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. is sitting there.

The Philadelphia Eagles (No. 22), New Orleans Saints (No. 27) and San Francisco 49ers (No. 30) are potential trade partners with the Ravens. What could the Ravens expect to get in return? The Eagles would need to give up a third-round pick to move up five spots, and the Saints and 49ers may need to hand over second-rounders.

Still, is trading back worth it for the Ravens? Let's look at the three previous times they moved back in the first round:

2008 DRAFT

The Ravens dropped from No. 8 to No. 26 and received two third-round picks (Nos. 71 and 89) and a fourth-round one (No. 125) from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens needed to trade one of those third-round picks (No. 89) to move back up to No. 18 to make sure they got quarterback Joe Flacco.

The net result of moving back was linebacker Tavares Gooden (No. 71 pick overall) and cornerback Fabian Washington (acquired for the No. 125 pick from the Oakland Raiders). Gooden started 12 games in three injury-filled seasons with the Ravens, and Washington started three seasons before being benched.

2010 DRAFT

The Ravens moved out of the first round, going from No. 25 overall to No. 43. In return, the Ravens got a third-round pick (No. 70) and a fourth-round one (No. 114) from the Denver Broncos.

Those extra picks became tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, both of whom were fixtures in the offense for the past three seasons. While Dickson is considered a disappointment, Pitta has become one of Flacco's go-to receivers.

But the top picks didn't work out for the Ravens or the Broncos. Denver traded up to get quarterback Tim Tebow, and the Ravens selected linebacker Sergio Kindle in the second round. Kindle was the worst top pick in Ravens' history.

Still, the Ravens likely wouldn't have fared much better if they stayed in the first round. The Ravens were eyeing pass rusher Jerry Hughes, who struggled his first three seasons before recording 10 sacks last season.

2012 DRAFT

Like the Ravens did in 2010, they moved out of the first round. This time, the Ravens fell just six spots from No. 29 to No. 35 and received a fourth-round pick (No. 98) in return.

The Ravens were still able to get linebacker Courtney Upshaw, their possible selection in the first round, even though they dropped into the second round. That fourth-round pick became center Gino Gradkowski, who started last season but is expected to be a backup this year.
The Baltimore Ravens weren't going to get back to the playoffs without fixing their offensive line, and the Ravens weren't going to get better on the line without upgrading at center.

Zuttah
This is why the Ravens' trade for Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Jeremy Zuttah on Sunday is so significant.

Zuttah, who turns 28 in June, isn't a Pro Bowl center and is coming off a below-average season. But what's important to the Ravens is that he's an upgrade over Gino Gradkowski, who struggled mightily in his first season as a starter.

At 6-foot-4, 308 pounds, Zuttah adds more size on the interior, which was a priority for the Ravens. Gradkowski got pushed around too often.

He brings more experience and stability than Gradkowski. In his six-year career, he has 76 starts including 32 the past two seasons.

Zuttah is also athletic and quick, which makes him a great fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme.

This was a creative way for the Ravens to fix their dilemma on the offensive line.

General manager Ozzie Newsome wanted to get bigger on the interior of the line, but the free-agent class for centers was underwhelming. So, instead of overpaying for someone, the Ravens traded a mid-round pick for Zuttah.

The Ravens truly made the best of a bad situation. They could've paid more than they wanted for journeyman Brian de la Puente or gambled with a stopgap like banged-up David Baas. And it was unlikely that they were going to pry Alex Mack away from the Browns because of the transition tag.

Zuttah was the best possible option, which is why it cost the Ravens a draft pick.

The Ravens still need to make another move on the offensive line. They have to add either a left guard (which moves Kelechi Osemele to right tackle) or a right tackle (which allows Osemele to stay at left guard).

Still, the Ravens solidified themselves at left tackle by re-signing Eugene Monroe and improved themselves at center by trading for Zuttah. They're moving in the right direction.
A look at the players who should feel good about their status and those who should worry following the hour-long "State of the Ravens" press conference this week:

THE WINNERS

Tight end Dennis Pitta: Pitta didn't have an outstanding four games after returning from a dislocated hip, making 20 catches for 169 yards (8.5-yard average) and one touchdown. The Ravens, though, didn't hide the fact that Pitta remains a priority free agent for them. General manager Ozzie Newsome complimented Pitta, saying he's a mismatch for defense and plays "winning football." A new contract or the franchise tag appears to be in Pitta's future.

Running back Ray Rice: The Ravens could have put the pressure on Rice by saying he has to prove himself once again. He is coming off his worst season in the NFL. Instead, Newsome and coach John Harbaugh continue to express confidence in Rice and his determination to rebound. Newsome believes Rice can be a Pro Bowl running back in the NFL again.

Assistant coach Juan Castillo: Life would have been easier for Harbaugh if he fired Castillo and made him the scapegoat for the worst running game in Ravens history. But Harbaugh reaffirmed his commitment to Castillo by giving him a new title (offensive line coach) and taking blame for Castillo being the team's lightening rod. In Harbaugh's eyes, Castillo wouldn't have taken so much criticism if Harbaugh gave him a different title than "run game coordinator" last season, especially in a season when the Ravens averaged a franchise-worst 83 yards per game.

THE LOSERS

Linebacker Terrell Suggs: Suggs was essentially put on notice by Newsome, just a couple of seasons removed from being the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Asked if Suggs was definitely going to be on the team in 2014, Newsome said he was "not a virgin" when it comes to letting players walk. It was the Ravens' not-so-subtle way of publicly telling Suggs that he needs to reduce his $12.4 million salary-cap number in order to stay. Suggs is usually the one delivering the hits, not taking them.

Center Gino Gradkowski: When asked about the Ravens' priorities this offseason, Newsome pointed out first that the team needs to get bigger in the interior of the offensive line. I'm sure that Newsome wasn't talking about former Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda or the 6-foot-5, 330-pound Kelechi Osemele. That's right, Newsome is pointing directly at Gradkowski. If I was Gradkowski, I would've shown up in the Ravens' weight room that next morning.

Safety James Ihedigbo: Also on the Ravens' list of improvements is finding a "more athletic safety," according to Newsome. Starting two strong safeties proved to be a problem with the Ravens' secondary. The Ravens can't afford to play Matt Elam, a first-round pick, out of position again. That means Ihedigbo, who had a strong season (second on the team in tackles with 101), is the odd man out. The Ravens basically replaced Bernard Pollard with two players and never filled Ed Reed's role.
T.J. Ward and Joe FlaccoUSA Today SportsThe Browns and T.J. Ward will try to snap an 11-game series slide against the Ravens and Joe Flacco.
.
The Baltimore Ravens have won 11 games in a row over the Cleveland Browns. That number is a measure not only of how good the Ravens have been since 2007 — the last time the Browns won in this series — but also how badly the Browns have struggled.

That 11-game win streak also is the longest current streak of regular-season wins by one team against another, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

By ending that streak, the Browns would make a statement about themselves and their status in the AFC North. But the Ravens realize they will need to start righting themselves if they wish to have a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. Let’s look ahead to the game with ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Browns reporter Pat McManamon.

Pat McManamon: The Ravens won the first game between these teams this season, in Week 2, and since then the Browns have started three different quarterbacks. What about the Ravens has changed since the first time these teams met?

Jamison Hensley: Pat, the problem for the Ravens is what hasn't changed. A big reason Baltimore is sitting at 3-4 is its inability to run the ball. The Ravens averaged 2.8 yards per rush against the Browns in Week 2, and they have averaged a league-worst 2.8 yards per rush for the season.

Ray Rice injured his hip in the fourth quarter against the Browns, and he really hasn't looked healthy since. But Rice has a great track record when playing in Cleveland. It's like his home turf, based on the results. In five games there, Rice has averaged 127.4 yards rushing. His worst game was 89 yards.

Is there any shot of Rice getting back on track against the Browns?

McManamon: The Browns are pretty good against the run. They give up 103.6 yards per game, good for 12th in the league. Three opponents have rushed for fewer than 100 yards, and last week they held the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles, second in the NFL in rushing yards this season, to 74 yards. That being said, if anyone is going to bust loose against the Browns, it would be Rice. He seems to salivate when he plays the Browns, especially in Cleveland -- where he's had games of 154, 89, 92, 204 and 98 yards in the last five seasons.

Let's flip to the passing game, Jamison. In his first start, Jason Campbell was surprisingly effective against the Chiefs' pass rush. He was able to make his reads and get rid of the ball in a hurry. Do you anticipate the Ravens coming up with anything to take advantage of Campbell, who is on his fourth team in eight seasons?

Hensley: The Ravens were impressed by Campbell, but they were more impressed by the Browns' offensive line, which allowed just one sack against the Chiefs. Baltimore will find out if Cleveland's pass protection will hold up for a second week. The Ravens will likely use the same aggressive game plan that resulted in five sacks of Brandon Weeden in the earlier meeting with the Browns.

In addition to Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil coming off the edges, the Ravens generated pressure by blitzing up the middle. Where the Ravens will really test Campbell is on third down. Baltimore has recorded 10 sacks on third down this season, fifth-most in the NFL. The last time the Ravens faced Campbell as a starter was 2008, but only two Ravens defensive starters from that game (Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata) remain on the team.

The bigger concern for the Ravens has been their inability to protect Joe Flacco. Has the Browns' pass rush lived up to expectations so far?

McManamon: In general, no, but last Sunday, yes. The Browns got six sacks against a pretty mobile quarterback in Alex Smith. The catch is that whereas defensive coordinator Ray Horton went after Smith, he dialed back the blitzes the previous two weeks when he faced Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers. The Browns have guys who can bring pressure in Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor, Paul Kruger (even with his low sack total) and rookie Barkevious Mingo. But against Green Bay and Detroit, Horton played coverage. Flacco isn't mobile, but he is smart and he's won a Super Bowl. It will be intriguing to see whether the Browns go after him or sit back.

Kruger is one of the departed Ravens from last season's Super Bowl champs. Which of those guys who left -- including the retired Ray Lewis -- do they miss the most?

Hensley: The Ravens haven't really missed Lewis on the field. Daryl Smith, who replaced the longtime face of the franchise, has been the defense's top playmaker. The top four players that the Ravens miss the most (in no particular order) are wide receiver Anquan Boldin, safety Ed Reed, safety Bernard Pollard and center Matt Birk.

Boldin was a difference-maker on third down and in the red zone, two areas where the offense has struggled this season. Teams would likely take fewer deep shots if Reed were playing center field, and there's less of an intimidation factor on defense without Pollard. The biggest surprise is how much the Ravens have struggled without Birk. In his first season as the starting center, Gino Gradkowski is getting pushed back too often.

Speaking of changes, the Ravens didn't have to face wide receiver Josh Gordon last month because he was serving his two-game suspension. Can his impact change the Browns' fortunes against the Ravens?

McManamon: Of course. Gordon is a talent. A big-time talent. At just 22, he’s second in the league in yards per catch, and every touchdown pass in his career has been for at least 20 yards. It’s no secret that the offense opened up for Brian Hoyer, in part because Hoyer played but also because he had Gordon back. That said, not even Gordon can overcome bad quarterbacking. He struggled when Weeden had his second chance because Weeden struggled. Campbell got him back in the offense. Baltimore must respect him.

.
Did anyone think the Baltimore Ravens would trail the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North standings in October? I mean, anyone who doesn't have a dog bone in their mouth. The Browns took over sole possession of first place in the division by beating the Buffalo Bills, 37-24, on Thursday night.

Cleveland, which is 3-2 for the first time since 2001, holds a half-game lead over the Ravens (2-2) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-2). Will the Browns still be in first place by themselves at day's end Sunday? We'll find out. The Ravens play at Miami (3-1), and the Bengals play host to unbeaten New England (4-0).

Here's your Friday edition of the wake-up caw ...
  • Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace isn't with the Steelers anymore, but that doesn't mean his feelings toward the Ravens have changed. "I haven’t played anybody in our division yet, so I think they’re still my least favorite team," Wallace told ESPN.com's James Walker. "Most definitely, I know they’re my least favorite team." Wallace has one 100-yard receiving game and one touchdown in nine games against the Ravens.
  • The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston was asked if there should be concern about Joe Flacco's recent play. "We should be concerned because Flacco feels the need to squeeze the ball into such tight spaces," Preston wrote.
  • Center Gino Gradkowski is determined to improve. "Obviously, I feel like there are a lot of things I could have done better on Sunday," Gradkowski told The Baltimore Sun. "I'm sure a few other guys feel that way, too. We'll just keep working hard at it and things will start going our way." Gradkowski is the lowest-ranked center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. It makes you wonder whether Ryan Jensen, who broke his foot at the beginning of training camp, will get a chance to start when he's healthy.
  • Dolphins linebacker Dannell Ellerbe faces his former team on Sunday for the first time since signing a five-year, $35 million deal with Miami. But Ellerbe said it was more than money that lured him to South Florida. "This is a better position for me to come down here and make a name for myself, to be able to be one of the top leaders on this defense, a new defense that’s up and coming and a young defense, one that I would be valued more on down here," Ellerbe said, via the team's official website.
  • The Press Box points out that the Ravens are down to two tight ends, Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson, after Billy Bajema was cut to make room for offensive tackle Eugene Monroe.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh made two things clear in the aftermath of the 23-20 loss at the Buffalo Bills:

It was his decision to abandon the run, and he would do it again in the same situation. The Ravens' plodding running game was the hot topic at Harbaugh's news conference Monday -- eight of the 17 questions asked had something to do with the ground attack -- and he did not back down from the decision to run the ball a franchise-low nine times, including twice in the second half.

"That's my call all the way," Harbaugh said. "I just felt like we weren't running the ball well enough to win the game running the ball. Looking back on it, I feel the same way. After watching the tape, I feel we did exactly the right thing to try to win that game. No second-guessing myself on that. That was my decision. That's the way we went with it. If you feel like we should have run the ball more in the second half, I definitely respect that opinion. But it didn't look that way to me. So, that's what we did."

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
AP Photo/Bill WippertRay Rice has just 89 rushing yards so far this season.
I do not fault Harbaugh's decision because the run game was going nowhere (the team was averaging 2.6 yards per carry). The Ravens also were 15 yards away from kicking the potential game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter, so the pass-heavy attack put Baltimore in position to pull off the comeback.

Where I differ with Harbaugh is the Ravens' ability to turn this ground game around. The Ravens are averaging 64 yards rushing per game, which ranks 28th in the NFL. There have been no signs of life from the Ravens' running game and that includes Sunday's game against the second-worst run defense in the NFL.

It's a strange turn of events for the Ravens because this is essentially the same offensive line that helped the Ravens average 134.8 yards rushing in the playoffs. The Ravens have not cracked 100 yards rushing as a team this season.

The only change on the offensive line has been second-year center Gino Gradkowski replacing 15-year veteran Matt Birk.

"He's done a good job physically," Harbaugh said of Gradkowski. "It hasn't been too often where Gino has been pushed around. He's done a good of job of holding the point. I talk to him all the time, I think he can come off the ball better. I think sometimes he's a little tentative with his footwork and wants to stay in front of people. Go ahead and come off the ball and move people a little bit. He's capable of doing that."

Harbaugh added, "It's a difference between Gino and Matt with the calls. I think we're feeling that in there right now. Gino is a really smart guy but Matt had been at it a lot of years. So, that's something that we're working through."

The other big change was adding Juan Castillo, the former offensive line coach and defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, to be the Ravens' run game coordinator. Harbaugh, though, said the Ravens aren't doing much different blocking-wise with Castillo.

"It's the same offense," Harbaugh said. "We still run the same plays. We still have the same philosophy. There's always a few wrinkles and that's why I brought Juan in because I was excited about things I knew he was going to bring to the table and bring into our program. And those things are part of what we're doing. We're not the same team we were two months ago, and we're going to be a different team two months from now. I'm most interested in what kind of team we are six days from now when we go down to Miami."

Harbaugh dismissed the notion that the health of running back Ray Rice, who returned after missing one game with a hip injury, was a factor in the Ravens struggling to run the ball against the Bills.

"The issue is what it always is. We just got to get better," he said. "We have to go to work and improve the things we can improve and make good decisions on what we choose to do and how we choose to scheme it. So, yes, we can game plan better and we can set formations up better to put our guys in position. I think our running backs can do a better job of running to the right sopt and trusting the offensive line."

Harbaugh added, "But the bottom line is it has nothing to do with style or technique. It's finding what our guys can do well with this group and doing it well. I'm very confident in every one of our coaches. We'll find a way to work it out. It's a process. It's going to be a year-long process."
Baltimore Ravens first-round pick Matt Elam is athletic and physical. He's been picking up the defense fast in offseason workouts and training camp, according to the coaches.

Ihedigbo
So why isn't Elam starting immediately at safety for the Ravens? Because coach John Harbaugh is smart. You don't start a rookie in his first game if he's going against Peyton Manning, especially if he's in the secondary. It's like an unwritten rule in the NFL.

James Ihedigbo will start the season, but I expect Elam to be starting by the end of it. Right now, Ihedigbo has more experience (15 starts the past two seasons), which is vital when you're going against a quarterback who is constantly trying to find the weak link when he stands at the line. Ihedigbo also held up well when he started against Denver in December, making six tackles.

"James [Ihedigbo] has been running with the ‘Number Ones' (in the preseason), and he’ll continue to do that," Harbaugh said Friday. "Matt [rotates] in and plays a lot. He’ll continue to do that whether it’s in the regular package or the other packages that we have. Both of those guys are going to play a lot of football -- just like our corners."

Harbaugh also announced that Gino Gradkowski will replace Matt Birk as the team's starting center. He beat out A.Q. Shipley.

Observation deck: Ravens-Rams

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
11:26
PM ET
Running back Bobby Rainey made the strongest case for one of the final roster spots in the Baltimore Ravens' 24-21 loss at St. Louis in Thursday's preseason finale.

Rainey showed great determination in two first-half touchdowns, which could give him the edge over Anthony Allen and Delone Carter for the third tailback spot. In a busy night for the undrafted player out of Western Kentucky, he finished with 13 carries for 39 yards, one punt return for 16 yards, two kickoff returns for 25 yards and one special-teams tackle.

Those numbers didn't accurately reflect Rainey's toughness or the countless tackles he broke. On the first touchdown, he was stopped by the pile at the goal line but got the ball across on a second effort. On his second score, Rainey was bottled up at the 5-yard line and bounced to his left to reach the end zone.

Last season, Rainey spent the first six weeks on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster. He was inactive for three games before going on injured reserve with a knee injury.

His scores were magnified when Allen and Carter failed to punch the ball in the end zone with carries inside the 10-yard line; Allen made it worse by fumbling at the 1. Allen and Carter combined for 3 yards on 13 carries. This will be a tough roster decision because Allen does so much on special teams, especially as the lead blocker on kickoffs.

Here are my other thoughts on the final preseason game for the Ravens, who finished 2-2:
  • The Ravens' top two draft picks were impressive. Safety Matt Elam, the first-round pick, made four first-quarter tackles and punched the ball out of Tavon Austin's grasp for a forced fumble. Linebacker Arthur Brown, the second-round pick, hit Kellen Clemens so hard that he made the Rams' backup quarterback's nose bleed and made a nice open-field tackle. The rookies both won't start right away, but these performances provide glimpses of the future.
  • There was a Tandon Doss sighting. For the first time this preseason, Doss did what the Ravens had envisioned, catching passes over the middle and beating defenders straight down the field out of the slot. He had five catches for 75 yards. But Marlon Brown didn't give up any ground in the wide receiver battle. The undrafted rookie scored on a 50-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. I will provide more thoughts on the wide receiver situation on Friday.
  • Omar Brown made the roster last year because he made big plays in the preseason. He came up big Thursday night as he looks to become the team's fourth safety. Brown forced a fumble over the middle of the field in the first quarter and nearly picked off a pass in the third quarter. The Ravens' top three safety spots are set with Elam, Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo.
  • The center battle appears to be over. Gino Gradkowski didn't play in the finale, which suggests that the Ravens didn't need to see any more from him. A.Q. Shipley started, but he hasn't done enough in the preseason to push Gradkowski for the job.
  • Joe Flacco didn't play, and Tyrod Taylor received the night off after suffering a head injury in the last preseason game. Third-stringer Caleb Hanie got to play the entire game, and it wasn't pretty. He was 20-of-39 for 272 yards, and he didn't receive much support. Hanie was pressured repeatedly and was charged with a fumble after Reggie Stephens (who also had a critical false start late in the fourth quarter) delivered a shotgun snap wide right. Hanie's final pass was intercepted in the final minute of the game.
SOMEWHERE IN WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA -- I'm making my way to Pittsburgh Steelers training camp for the last stop on my AFC North tour. For Steelers fans, you know I saved the best for last. Or did I just go in my predicted order of the division? As you ponder that, I have the GPS set for St. Vincent College. If I can get players before practice, I will have a Steelers post on the blog by early afternoon. If not, I will put up a post after the team's afternoon workout. Here's your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: The battle for the starting center position took an interesting turn when the Ravens revealed A.Q. Shipley will start Thursday's preseason game. Gino Gradkowski, who has long been considered the favorite to win the job, started the preseason opener. "The nice thing right now is everybody says, 'Who's the guy?'" Ravens run-game coordinator Juan Castillo said, via The Baltimore Sun. "We're talking to them and we say, 'We need to have some separation, somebody has to come to the top.' The problem is they're both playing real well right now. They're both doing a good job. They're both in the pass protection, both using their hands real well."

BENGALS: Outside linebacker James Harrison still insists there isn't much of a difference going from Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense to Cincinnati's 4-3 scheme. "I’m basically doing the same things, I’m just doing it from a different alignment," Harrison said, via the team's official website. "The hardest part is getting used to lining up stacked off of the line and having to read centers, tackles, guards, all of that, where normally I’m just reading the tackles and tight ends. I don’t rush as much, especially on tackles now, but I’m doing the same things as some point in time that I did in Pittsburgh. Even when we were in our nickel coverages in Pittsburgh, sometimes I lined up stacked. Now I’m just doing it down after down."

STEELERS: Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu hopes to repay the Steelers for sticking with him after his late-night, drunken-driving rampage 10 months ago. "I just want to keep working and, hopefully, that the next time people start talking it will be about football," Ta'amu told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I just want to keep quiet and let my work do the noise." Ta'amu added, "All the mistakes were because of me. It's up to me to fix them and try to do better this year."

BROWNS: Running back Trent Richardson will play in his first preseason game for the Browns, according to an Associated Press report. Coach Rob Chudzinski said Richardson, who has been slowed by a shin injury, will be used for "a couple of series. Richardson told reporters after practice: "I kind of had a feeling he was going to say, 'Yeah' today because he had me going in there with starters today. It felt good when I was out there and I'm happy coach told y'all I can play."
If it seems like it was just a short while ago that the Baltimore Ravens were celebrating in New Orleans, you're not the only one. It's hard for me to believe that the preseason officially kicks off in the AFC North tonight. But that's what the schedule tells me. I will provide my observations on the preseason openers for the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns after the games have ended. Let's kick off the day like we usually do on the blog -- with the wake-up call.

RAVENS: Jeff Saturday, a longtime NFL center and current ESPN analyst, weighed in on the Ravens' competition at center between Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley. "I like the kid out of Delaware, Gradkowski," Saturday told The Baltimore Sun. "I liked him a lot coming out of there. I know that (Matt) Birk has spoken very highly of him, respects the way he takes care of business. He's capable and ready to get that job. Coming from a guy like Birk to think that highly of you, that's very impressive. He would know what Gino can do. Talking to people around the NFL, I've heard nothing but good things about him."

BENGALS: How much the starters play in the preseason opener will be dictated by how well they play. "That's the carrot you have," coach Marvin Lewis told the team's official website. "We'll get the first guys crisp snaps and we'll see how many snaps they earn based on how they go out there and do things. Coming here (to practice against the Falcons) is a great opportunity for them to get more exposure than they'll get Thursday night."

STEELERS: The Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round because his speed, agility and football aptitude outweighed his lack of height (he's 5-foot-9). “We have had some pretty good short players around here,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “If a guy plays good football, we don't overexcite ourselves with his height. A good safety can bring guys down to his level.”

BROWNS: Running back Trent Richardson (shin) and safety T.J. Ward (hamstring) have been ruled out for the preseason opener by coach Rob Chudzinski. "Those guys would be available to play normally,” Chudzinski said, via the Akron Beacon Journal. “But since it’s the preseason we’re going to be smart with them and hold them for the game.” With Richardson and backup Montario Hardesty (hamstring) out, Dion Lewis will get the start at running back.
Many believe the Cincinnati Bengals will be among the breakout teams in 2013. Our friends at Football Outsiders believe the Bengals are tied with the New England Patriots for the most breakout prospects this year.

It's an Insider article, so you'll need a subscription to view the entire top 25Insider. Here are the players who made the list from the AFC North:

4. Cortez Allen, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Allen steps into the starting role left by Keenan Lewis, who signed with the New Orleans Saints in free agency. Football Outsiders: Last year as Pittsburgh's nickelback, Allen allowed 6.3 adjusted yards per pass (12th among cornerbacks) and had a 55 percent adjusted success rate (26th).

7. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: Sanu caught four touchdown passes in three games before suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 13. Football Outsiders: He isn't going to explode off the line, and he's not going to streak down the field -- but Sanu is built to beat coverage with his body, not his speed. If scouts are correct, he'll develop into a high-volume, very reliable possession receiver, which fits what the Bengals need to complement A.J. Green.

15. Gino Gradkowski, C, Baltimore Ravens: Gradkowski is favored to beat out A.Q. Shipley for Matt Birk's old starting job. Football Outsiders: At 300 pounds, Gradkowski is a little bit light for an NFL center, but that also means he's very agile and light on his feet, adept at pulls, traps and blocking for screen passes.

18. Brandon Thompson, DT, Bengals: After essentially redshirting his rookie season, Thompson will take the snaps left by backup Pat Sims, who signed with the Oakland Raiders in free agency. Football Outsiders: Thompson is an excellent interior gap stuffer, but he's also adept at an array of pass-rush moves including bull rush, swim and rip. He could eventually develop into the replacement for Domata Peko when Peko's contract ends after the 2014 season.

22. Emmanuel Lamur, OLB, Bengals: He isn't a household name, but he replaced Rey Maualuga in passing situations during minicamp. Football Outsiders: This could be the first step toward taking Maualuga out of the starting lineup entirely, in which case Burfict would move to the middle and Lamur would take the starting job at weakside linebacker.

SPONSORED HEADLINES