Flacco displays his mettle

OWINGS MILLS -- It was a pivotal third down with the Baltimore Ravens staring upward at a two-touchdown deficit midway through the third quarter, an obstacle that would have seemed insurmountable in the past. That was prior to the arrival of strong-armed rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.

Flacco behaved as if gaining the 16 yards from the Ravens' 15-yard line Sunday was a routine practice exercise, handling the sequence decisively with a rifle throw over the middle to wide receiver Derrick Mason for a critical first down.

That 20-yard completion triggered the Ravens' first step toward a 37-27 comeback victory Sunday over the Cleveland Browns, leading to fullback Le'Ron McClain plunging into the end zone to cap the drive and bring Baltimore to within one score of tying the game.

The drive was perhaps another signal that Flacco is emerging as a legitimate NFL quarterback.

"Obviously, it didn't look great," Flacco said regarding the 27-13 disadvantage. "But there was a ton of time left in the game and you have to look your guys in the eye and tell them, 'We're going to go out there and we're going to get this done.'"

And they did as Flacco completed six of his next seven passes for 85 yards during the Ravens' epic rally. The towering first-round draft pick completed 17 of 29 passes for 249 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 109.6 quarterback rating.

While this was a strong performance, it wasn't an aberration under center. It's rapidly becoming a trend.

Over his first five NFL starts, Flacco threw one touchdown with seven interceptions as he completed 62.5 percent of his throws for 844 yards and a paltry 60.6 rating.

It's not a mere coincidence that the Ravens have won three consecutive games as Flacco hasn't thrown an interception.

"The No. 1 thing for any offensive football player, and especially for the quarterback, is to respect the possession of the football," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "For him to accomplish not throwing an interception in the last three games as a young quarterback, it gives us a chance to win. He knows how important it is.

"The thing about Joe we've said from the very beginning, he may make a mistake and he'll make plenty of mistakes throughout his career, but he's not the kind of guy that doesn't learn from them."

During those three victories, Flacco has thrown four touchdowns with no interceptions for a 104.1 quarterback rating. He has completed 46 of 76 throws for 620 yards.

He has gone 88 passing attempts in a row without an interception. His rating ranks seventh in the NFL over the past month.

"Each week, you take another step, you move on to another level," Flacco said. "Your confidence is always growing. You get more and more experience each week. We are in the hunt, but we need to just stack up wins. That is our main focus right now."

Flacco has fumbled six times, losing one, but seems to be improving his ball security of late. He has also rushed for two touchdowns.

"The interceptions have been important, but I think he's protecting the ball in the pocket so much better," Harbaugh said. "When he gets pressure around him, he's tucking that right shoulder, putting the ball where it's supposed to be and protecting the ball like he's supposed to. I'm more excited about that maybe than the interceptions."

Against Cleveland, Flacco displayed a willingness to press the issue and keep going downfield.

Following a throw to wide receiver Mark Clayton in the end zone that he dropped during the opening drive, Flacco didn't hesitate to go back to him on the subsequent possession. He connected with a diving Clayton for a 47-yard touchdown pass for his first score in 66 receptions.

"It shows the aggressiveness of our offense," Clayton said. "When we have something, we're going to attack it."

Especially with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron willing to grant Flacco more autonomy to throw downfield.

Asked if he still felt like a rookie midway through the season, Flacco replied: "We haven't felt like rookies since we were a couple weeks in. We don't think about that. We've been playing football our whole lives."

Flacco has improved since a three-interception setback in a 31-3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, becoming more fluent at looking off safeties, throwing in rhythm and willing to throw over the middle.

The former Delaware star had shied away from throwing regularly over the middle since throwing an interception during the first game against the Browns, consistently working the sideline and flat areas.

Now, Flacco seems to be surveying the entire field to locate his targets.

"He's very poised," Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said of Flacco. "He has those instincts in the pocket, which you can't teach where you can move around in the pocket and feel the rush, but still keep your eyes downfield. He's going to be a very good quarterback.

For the season, Flacco has completed 136 of 220 passes (61.8 percent) for 1,464 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 75.6 quarterback rating.

In the fourth quarter against the Browns, Flacco found Mason in the fourth quarter for a 28-yard touchdown as Baltimore generated a season-high 429 yards of total offense.

"I think we did a great job of getting what we wanted," Flacco said. "We felt like they wanted to put pressure on us and we converted on those chances, enough for the win."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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