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Road test

Joe Flacco returns tonight to Pittsburgh, the place he started his college career.

But the Ravens rookie quarterback is really walking in unfamiliar territory.

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Tonight's Monday Night Football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers marks Flacco's first NFL start on the road, the biggest challenge in his fledgling career.

Will he flourish before a hostile crowd as the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger once did? Or will he stumble as so many other first-year starting quarterbacks have?

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Ravens coach John Harbaugh could offer only one certainty.

"They won't be chanting, 'Let's go Flacco,' " he said, alluding to the new rallying cry at M&T; Bank Stadium.

Playing before a supportive fan base, Flacco has been a portrait of poise with his confidence to create plays on his own and his ability to shake off mistakes.

This mettle will be tested in a situation in which most young quarterbacks have failed.

In the previous five seasons, nine first-round quarterbacks have started road games in their rookie seasons but only one - Roethlisberger - won his first one.

These rookie quarterbacks - the likes of whom included Eli Manning, Jay Cutler and Kyle Boller - combined to throw almost twice as many interceptions (nine) as touchdowns (five) in their first road starts. Only four of them completed more than half of their passes.

"He's a different personality than any quarterback I've played with," tight end Todd Heap said. "He's just got that calmness about him. I don't see anything being too big for him right now."

At Division I-AA Delaware, Flacco said, he never played in front of a visiting crowd larger than 30,000.

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That number will be more than doubled at Heinz Field, where 65,050 fans dressed in black and gold will converge to try to take Flacco off his game.

"I'm sure it's going to be very loud there, and we're not going to be able to hear very much," Flacco said. "NFL offenses deal with it every week, and that's what we're going to do."

The Ravens have tried their best to acclimate Flacco.

On Friday, the team practiced outside with speakers blasting artificial crowd noise. On Saturday, the Ravens did the same but worked indoors, where it sounded more like a rock concert than a football practice.

"We train our quarterbacks as though every practice is an on-the-road, in-division practice," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "You're always trying to create the worst scenario you can."

There are several scenarios at play for Flacco.

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This is his first brush with the Steelers, the Ravens' fiercest rival. This is his first NFL game on the national stage.

And, as the result of Hurricane Ike postponing the Ravens' game at Houston, Flacco's first road game happens to come at the place he fled only a few years ago.

Flacco started his college career at the University of Pittsburgh, but he left the program after his sophomore season when it became apparent he would not get a chance to compete with Tyler Palko for the starting job.

He transferred to Delaware, where he threw for 7,046 yards and 41 touchdowns with only 15 interceptions in two seasons.

"It's kind of weird that my first start is in Pittsburgh," 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 excited the Ravens' fan base by becoming the third rookie quarterback since 1970 to start 2-0 (joining John Elway and Ryan Leaf).

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But he has excited the Ravens' coaching staff by the way he has handled adversity.

"He made the bad throw, and I'm going over to console Joe," Harbaugh said after last week's 28-10 victory in which Flacco threw two interceptions, "and Joe's consoling me. That's the kind of guy Joe is."

Like Harbaugh, teammates don't seem worried about Flacco.

"I think he's looking forward to going down there to Pittsburgh and playing in that environment," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "He's a guy that thrives on things like that."

travel woes

Since 2003, nine quarterbacks selected in the first round have started a road game in their rookie seasons. A look at how they fared in their first road start:

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2003

Quarterback Comp-Att Yds TD Int Byron Leftwich, Jack. 17-36 231 1 3

Kyle Boller, Ravens 22-43 152 1 1

Rex Grossman, Chi. 6-10 31 0 0

2004

Eli Manning, NYG 12-25 113 0 0

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Ben Roethlisberger, Pit. 12-22 163 1 1 2005

Alex Smith, S.F. 8-16 92 0 1

2006

Vince Young, Tenn. 10-21 63 0 1

Matt Leinart, Ariz. 13-32 203 0 2

Jay Cutler, Den. 17-30 188 2 0

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RAVENS @STEELERS

Tonight, 8:30 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13, ESPN

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Steelers

by 5


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