Flacco has had a solid start to his NFL career, and is one season away from being considered an elite NFL quarterback. His play has steadily improved in each of his three seasons, but Flacco has not managed to do one thing.
Beat Ben Roethlisberger.
Playing for the Ravens, Flacco is measured on how well he does against the Steelers, and so far he has simply not measured up to Big Ben. Fair or not, Joe Flacco must take down the Steelers and Roethlisberger before he can be considered an elite NFL quarterback.
If the Ravens are ever going to upend the Steelers, it must happen this year. Joe Flacco is ready to lead his team past Pittsburgh and once and for all quiet his doubters.
Besides finally beating the Steelers, there are nine other reasons that come to mind when determining that 2011 will be the year that Joe Flacco finally breaks through into the ranks of elite NFL quarterbacks.
Joe Flacco has improved consistently since his rookie season in every statistical category. Last season was his best yet, with 25 touchdowns compared to only 10 interceptions. He also had a passer rating over 90 for the first time in his career.
Flacco has reached the tier of quarterbacks right below the elite level in the NFL. If he continues his progression, he will be on the verge of cracking the top tier, where Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers reside. All he needs to do is secure a victory over Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers or one of the elite quarterbacks in the playoffs.
Flacco has a good chance to do just that. With a Ravens offense that made significant improvements at the skill positions, Flacco can continue his natural progression to the ranks of the NFL's elite quarterbacks.
Never underestimate the value of confidence—especially at the quarterback position in the NFL.
In a recent interview, Flacco cited his playoff victories as reason enough to be considered an elite quarterback and rated himself as a top five quarterback in the league.
While Flacco is obviously not in that class yet, the fact he believes he should be considered with the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the league says a lot about the kind of player he is.
He would not make those statements if he did not believe he could back them up. All that stands in Flacco's way is the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. He will need confidence to take it down.
It looks like he has it in abundance.
The Ravens did not have many holes to fill this offseason. They did fill one of their most glaring holes by signing bruising fullback Vonta Leach from the Houston Texans.
Leach will have a huge impact in protecting Flacco, especially against the Steelers and Troy Polamalu. Ravens fans are still having nightmares about Polamalu coming off the edge and tomahawking the ball out of Flacco's arm.
This year, Leach will be there to provide reinforcement to the blind side. That will be key in allowing Flacco to find receivers without rushing his throws. Given time, the Ravens passing attack should flourish.
2010 was Anquan Boldin's first year away from pass-happy Arizona. After averaging more than 80 catches per season with the Cardinals, Boldin's first season with the Ravens was not as productive.
He had only 64 catches and did not surpass 1,000 yards receiving. Boldin clearly had a hard time adjusting to the new offense, and with the presence of Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, he was not Flacco's favorite target.
With both Mason and Heap gone and a season of work together, Flacco will be looking for Boldin more often this season. This will help his numbers, as Boldin is one of the top receivers in the league and will give Flacco a good red zone target.
While he is not flashy, Boldin still produces great results when thrown the ball on a regular basis.
Todd Heap was the security blanket for Ravens quarterbacks for years on end. The Ravens parted ways with the tight end this offseason to make way for Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.
These two young players fit the more dynamic tight end mold. Heap more closely resembled the old-school tight end who was just as happy blocking as running a curl route. These newer additions are out of the hybrid tight end-receiver mold and are able to split out and run down field routes.
This will make the Ravens passing attack more dangerous and give Flacco more downfield options. These are the kind of players that were missing from the Ravens passing attack last year. The NFL is becoming more and more pass oriented. The Ravens needed a field stretcher at every skill position to strengthen their offense.
In Dickson and Pitta they may have filled in their one missing hole.
The Ravens offense last year suffered from an overabundance of older possession receivers. Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh sometimes had a hard time getting separation from their defenders, which clearly hurt the Ravens ability to move the ball through the air.
Both are gone this year, and the Ravens made wide receiver a priority in the draft, selecting two young burners in Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss. Both will have the chance to step on the field early in the season and show their abilities. A third young receiver, David Reed, will also battle with the draft picks to be the team's third receiver.
All three of these players bring speed and youthful energy to the receiver position. This infusion of youth will help Flacco and allow the Ravens to make better use of his arm strength. Flacco can look forward to having these targets around for years to come. The prospect of Flacco driving the ball down the field is something Ravens fans have salivated about since he was drafted.
Now he has the targets to partner with.
Ray Rice is one of the best receiving running backs in the league. His backup, free agent signee Ricky Williams, is also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Last year, with the possession receivers clogging up the underneath routes, Rice was not as free to catch the ball in open space. Now, with more downfield threats and faster receivers, he and Williams should find more open space underneath.
Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, who were mentioned earlier, will require the attention of the opponent's linebacking corps to play more pass defense. This will allow Rice and Williams to find holes in the zone and open space to run after the catch.
With his running backs free to roam after the catch, Flacco will be able to check down safely and still pick up yards. The Ravens need to utilize the open field running of Rice to reach their full offensive potential.
The Ravens have never had a true deep threat like Lee Evans. Even while playing in Buffalo, where he was never paired with an elite quarterback, Evans averaged nearly 16 yards a catch.
The Ravens have never had a wideout with the ability to get behind defenses and force the safety to help over the top. Evans will force opposing defenses to fear the deep ball.
Flacco has the arm strength to throw a great deep ball, but he never had the right receiver to target on the go route. Evans has already established himself as the Ravens deep threat after just one preseason game. He and Flacco need to develop chemistry quickly.
It will serve both of them well to do so.
The Ravens made a commitment to improving their wide receiver corps this offseason. By doing so, they signaled a change in their offensive mindset.
No longer will the Ravens passing attack be focused solely on short, underneath routes. With faster, younger wide receivers present, they will be able to open up the playbook and try to push the ball downfield through the air.
Cam Cameron, the Ravens offensive coordinator, has been under fire for being too conservative in his play calling. With all these new weapons in place for Flacco to throw to, he cannot afford to keep his conservative style.
He will have to allow Flacco to throw downfield more often, or run the risk of being criticized as being too conservative. This will allow Flacco to show off his arm and rack up the yardage and touchdowns.
The only way to truly become an elite NFL quarterback in the eyes of most analysts is to lead your team to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens have a team capable of winning the Super Bowl. Unlike its last Super Bowl run, where defense dominated the highlights in Baltimore, the offense is going to have to contribute if the Ravens are to realize their potential.
Flacco is going to have to step up to lead the offense to new heights. If he is able to do so, he will earn the elite label he is so desperately seeking.