Return to Pittsburgh marks circle for Flacco

OWINGS MILLS -- The irony struck Joe Flacco quickly as the notion sunk in that his first start in the city of Pittsburgh would occur as the Baltimore Ravens' rookie quarterback, and not as a University of Pittsburgh freshman five years ago. For Flacco, it's a case of a burgeoning football career coming full circle.

Shackled to the bench behind Tyler Palko as a freshman and a sophomore, Flacco went 1 for 4 for 11 yards in limited reserve action at Pitt. Frustrated at not getting a fair shake in his opinion, Flacco trekked to the hinterlands of college football at Division I-AA Delaware to prove himself.

Now, Flacco is back where it all started at Heinz Field as he quarterbacks the undefeated Ravens (2-0) against the Steelers (2-1) and their second-ranked defense.

"It's kind of weird that my first start in Pittsburgh will be on Monday night in an NFL game, not a college game," Flacco said. "But I'm not really looking at that. It's an NFL game. It's Monday night, and it should be a lot of fun to go out there and play a division opponent."

Flacco has displayed uncommon poise for a rookie while managing a conservative game plan tailored toward capitalizing on a strong running game. Although Flacco isn't being asked to carry the offense while he learns on the job, this shapes up as his most demanding challenge yet.

The Steelers run an unpredictable 3-4 defense built on creating pressure with intricate blitz packages. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's unit has generated 10 sacks and is taking more chances in the secondary than usual.

The Steelers feature impact players in safety Troy Polamalu and linebackers James Farrior and James Harrison.

Yet, the Ravens aren't concerned about Flacco wilting under the heat of the pass rush or overreacting to a hostile crowd.

"Joe will do well," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "I'm not worried about how Joe will do. He's matured over the last two games as a quarterback. I think he's looking forward to going down there to Pittsburgh and playing in that environment. He's a guy that thrives on things like that."

Added tight end Todd Heap: "Joe is a different personality than any quarterback I've played with. I see a bright future for him. He's just got that calmness about him. He's got a good head on his shoulders and he takes everything in stride.

"He doesn't let the lows get him down. He just kind of brushes them off his back and goes to the next play. It's good to have a quarterback back there who doesn't let anything faze him. Joe is well-equipped for this."

With Flacco completing 28 of 48 passes for 258 yards, no touchdown passes, two interceptions and a 38-yard touchdown run, the Ravens have the 30th-ranked passing offense.

His 55.7 quarterback rating ranks him 29th in the NFL, ahead of only the Houston Texans' Matt Schaub, the Cleveland Browns' Derek Anderson and the Kansas City Chiefs' Tyler Thigpen heading into Sunday's games.

However, Flacco's modest statistics don't reflect a precocious ability to improvise evidenced by his audible for his scrambling score against the Bengals or his throwback completion to Heap in a 28-10 win over the Cleveland Browns.

"I would say it's encouraging," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Being creative as a football player at any position is important. If you look at the really good quarterbacks in the history of the league, they've all had that, haven't they? They have the ability to move around and make plays on their own."

Flacco has only been sacked once.

At 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, he's been sturdy in the pocket and mobile outside of it.

"The more experience I get, the more prepared I'll be the next week," Flacco said. "That'll hold true throughout my whole career, I think. The last thing you want to do is take a step back.

"You start seeing the field better. You get a feel for your offense. Next, you've got to get a feel for how the defense plays and the little details within that. It all starts with your vision. With each game and with each repetition, your vision gets better and better."

Flacco is just the third rookie quarterback since 1970 to win his first two games of the season, joining John Elway and Ryan Leaf.

With a win, he can become the first rookie quarterback to lead his team to a 3-0 start to the season since the Bengals' Greg Cook in 1969.

When the Ravens maneuvered to pick him 18th overall after he passed for 4,263 yards, 23 touchdowns and five interceptions as a senior, Flacco made it clear that he would never forget his unproductive experience at Pittsburgh.

"I never got a shot," Flacco said in April. "I still carry it with me that I'm a I-AA guy and I had to go down to the minor leagues of college football and prove who I was. I'm going to carry that with me the rest of my life." Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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