The contact came just after the ball left Joe Flacco's right hand. Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon, who beat left tackle Bryant McKinnie on an inside move, slammed into Flacco's left hip and then followed through, sending the Ravens' quarterback to the ground.
As Tandon Doss caught the ball and went out of bounds for a 40-yard gain, Flacco picked himself up and jogged down the field, not even pausing to take inventory of what hurt following his meeting with a 6-foot-2, 268-pound pass rusher.
Plays like this one, from the third quarter of the Ravens' 26-23 victory over the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, are providing more fodder for right tackle Michael Oher's post-game declaration that Flacco is the toughest quarterback in the NFL. But they're also becoming all too familiar for the Ravens who have watched their $120.6 million quarterback take a beating in recent weeks.
"Again, Joe, I would say, is still under too much duress," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday during a terse news conference.
Only six quarterbacks have been sacked this season more than Flacco, who has been taken down 14 times through five games. At this current rate, Flacco will be sacked 45 times this season, 10 more than last year when he was the eighth most sacked quarterback in the NFL.
But it goes beyond just the sack totals. Flacco has been hit 18 times over the past two weeks, six by the Dolphins and 12 times by the Buffalo Bills in a 23-20 defeat in Orchard Park. N.Y. In comparison, he was hit just 17 times in the Ravens' four postseason games last year.
Harbaugh vowed after Sunday's game that the Ravens will be a good pass protection team, taking it a step further by saying, "I guarantee you that." However, in that area, they remain a work-in progress with help possibly on the way with Eugene Monroe's pending insertion into the starting lineup at left tackle ahead of McKinnie.
Monroe was acquired last week from the Jacksonville Jaguars but he didn't have enough practice time for the Ravens to feel comfortable with him playing against the Dolphins. However, that figures to change this week.
"I think we're in wait-and-see mode right now," Harbaugh said when asked about Monroe's status. "I think we'll see what happens. We don't really know for sure right now. Yeah, he looked good last week, he looked really good. We'll just have to see how it plays out. This is uncharted territory for us. It really is. We've never been down this road before."
Even with McKinnie struggling against the Dolphins — he allowed two quarterback hits and four hurries according to Pro Football Focus — Harbaugh saw some positive signs in pass blocking after the debacle against the Bills.
"I would say that it was improved," Harbaugh said. "We lost a couple of one-on-one battles that got to Joe. But they were one-on-one battles. They weren't situations where we had a miscommunication or protection error so that was positive. And we had a lot of good protections, too."
A first-round pick in 2008, Flacco has started every game of his Ravens' career. His 85 consecutive starts are third among NFL quarterbacks, trailing just the New York Giants' Eli Manning (140) and the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers (117).
That he keeps bouncing up and showing a willingness to hang in the pocket and deliver a pass while under pressure is not something that Harbaugh and Flacco's teammates take for granted.
"That's the thing about Joe. I think that's part of Joe's greatness," Harbaugh said. "That's part of what makes Joe who he is. You look around the league and you'll see a lot of quarterbacks not doing those things, not standing in there the way he stands in there. He's special that way. We don't win that game without his willingess to stand in there and make those throws."
Ravens center Gino Gradkowski said that the offensive line has to keep Flacco cleaner, but the unit knows that "Joe's going to get up and keep battling."
In his typical fashion, Flacco was dismissive when asked about the number of hits the Dolphins got on him. He said it was something that he doesn't pay attention to and his whole focus is on getting up and making the next throw.
However, there were a couple of instances on Sunday when Flacco, aware of the constant pressure he was under, threw the ball much sooner than he wanted. Then, there were other times, like on Reshad Jones' game-tying interception return for a touchdown, where Flacco probably held onto the ball too long. On that play, rookie Dion Jordan beat McKinnie and then hit Flacco's arm as he got ready to deliver the pass.
According to Pro Football Focus metrics, Flacco is taking a little bit longer to get rid of the ball this year compared to last. That probably can be explained by the quarterback's unfamiliarity with so many of his targets.
The Ravens, though, aren't looking to assess blame. They're just focused on making sure that defensive tackles or linebackers don't get any more free runs at their quarterback, like the one Vernon had on Sunday.
"We got the win, that's all that matters," Oher said. "Once you watch the film, you'll get better."
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