Flacco Settling into Leadership Role for Ravens

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Flacco Settling into Leadership Role for Ravens
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - The NFL "firsts" kept coming this weekend for Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

Flacco notched his first road victory with Sunday's 27-13 win at Miami. He posted his first triple-digit quarterback rating (120.2) against one of the league's top pass-rushing defenses.

But on Saturday night, Flacco experienced something new that he won't want to re-live. Flacco was called out by one of his coaches during the team's pregame offensive meeting.

According to Ravens right tackle Willie Anderson, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told the unit's six first-year players that, "It's Week 7. This rookie stuff is done." Cameron then turned his attention to the most important youngster of them all.

"Cam pointed at (Flacco) and said very loudly, 'You've got to lead us,'" Anderson said.

Lead he did.

Flacco wasn't the hero Sunday. Willis McGahee (105 rushing yards, one touchdown) spearheaded a ground attack that allowed Baltimore to control the clock for roughly 23 of the game's final 34 minutes. The Ravens' top-ranked defense did its part, stymieing Miami's running game and Wildcat formations while also producing a score on linebacker Terrell Suggs' 44-yard interception return.

But for the first time this season — yup, another first — Flacco never felt like a liability. He connected with six different receiving targets while completing 17 of 23 throws for 232 yards.

Flacco never lost his composure. Not during the three times he was sacked. Not after botching a handoff with McGahee that forced a Ravens third-quarter punt when Miami only trailed by a touchdown. Not even after making an errant throw that could have changed the game's complexion late in the first half.

Because wide receiver Derrick Mason ran the wrong route, Flacco fired a bullet in the end zone that should have gotten intercepted but instead bounced off the chest of Dolphins cornerback Will Allen. An unfazed Flacco returned to Mason on the next play, tossing an 11-yard touchdown pass that gave the Ravens a 17-6 advantage.

Asked to reflect upon the sequence, Flacco said, "It happened. It was over. We moved onto the next play."

Not every 23-year-old would have such a pragmatic approach, especially one prematurely thrust into the starting lineup when Kyle Boller (shoulder) and Troy Smith (illness) went down during the preseason. Considered a project when selected with the No. 18 overall pick in April's draft, Flacco was forced to immediately face much tougher defenses than during his playing days at the University of Delaware.

The Ravens won their first two games with Flacco turning in caretaker performances. That wasn't good enough in three losses that followed. Flacco threw just one touchdown pass while being sacked nine times and tossing five interceptions, including three in last Sunday's 34-3 loss at Indianapolis.

That performance prompted Ravens media to ask first-year coach John Harbaugh last week whether a change under center could be forthcoming. Harbaugh gave Flacco a strong vote of confidence, but it wasn't necessary to inflate his quarterback's self-esteem. Flacco already had put the game behind him.

"You definitely feel bad about it," Flacco said. "It sits in your stomach. The only way to get rid of it is to come back and win. That's why it was huge to get this."

It was huge to Cameron, who became emotional in the locker room Sunday after beating the team that fired him as head coach last January following just one season. And it was big for Flacco, who continues to win over coaches and teammates.

Harbaugh, a Philadelphia Eagles assistant coach the past 10 years, said Flacco's confidence reminds him of a young Donovan McNabb. Anderson, who spent the past 12 seasons playing for Cincinnati, said Flacco invoked memories Sunday of Carson Palmer when that Bengals quarterback began asserting himself in the huddle.

"Once Carson grabbed the reins and said 'Shut up!' like (Flacco) was doing today, you shut up," Anderson said. "It's his huddle. He's gained that respect from us, not just today. He's played his tail off in some big games."

But forget about Palmer and McNabb. The quarterback with whom Flacco will be most compared in the short term is fellow rookie Matt Ryan, who has guided Atlanta to a 4-2 record.

As evidenced by his lack of downfield passing and tendency to lock onto receivers, Flacco isn't as far advanced as Ryan. Harbaugh, though, believes Flacco is getting there.

"There's less and less time where he drops back, (the defense) shows him something and he just freezes and makes a bad mistake," Harbaugh said. "That last game (against Indianapolis), there were a few of those. This game, there weren't as many. The next game there may be some more.

"It's going to be an up-and-down deal. But as we go forward and he sees more things, you like to think there are fewer that will freeze him."

There must be if Baltimore (3-3) is going to push Pittsburgh (5-1) atop the AFC North.

"The key to every game for us is to protect him, run the football and for him to recognize what he's doing," Anderson said. "The great thing that Cam is doing is not saying, 'We're only going to throw 10 passes.' Cam is going to throw it. He told Joe, 'If this offense is going to be what we want it to be, you're going to have to be able to throw the ball 25, 30 times a game and be consistent.'"

In other words, Flacco must be Joe Cool. On this warm South Florida afternoon, he was just that for the first time in his NFL career.

This article originally published on FOXSports.com.

More of Alex's articles can be found here.

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