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GROWING PAINS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a city with a history of offensive futility, the Ravens once again are courting a shortfall. The offense hasn't scored a first-half touchdown in a month of Sundays and has just two touchdowns in the past 12 quarters - a drought that threatens to knock the team out of playoff contention.

And now, with an almost biblical sense of timing, come the Pittsburgh Steelers, who blighted Joe Flacco's rookie season like a swarm of locusts.

In three meetings last season, they sacked him 10 times, intercepted him five and beat him all three, including the AFC championship game. Flacco's passer rating plummeted with each loss: from a solid 81.7 in overtime in September to a shaky 22.2 in December to a sordid 18.2 in January.

Say this for Flacco: Either he's got a short memory or he's pretty resilient.

Dragging that famine behind him, Flacco said this could be the week the Ravens' offense finally breaks out.

"We feel good, and what better game to do it than against these guys?" the 24-year-old quarterback said. "We feel confident that we're going to go out there and score touchdowns, and when you don't, it's disappointing. We've got to do whatever we can do to fix that, and I think we're on our way to getting the job done."

The Ravens were on their way to getting the job done in Week 11 when, at the Indianapolis 14-yard line, Flacco threw an ill-advised pass for Ray Rice that Colts linebacker Gary Brackett picked off. It was a flash point that symbolized all that has gone wrong this season for Flacco.

Opposing defenses have gotten wiser - and more deceptive - in what they show Flacco.

"Joe's getting more disguised looks" from the defense, Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "That's the difference. Before, they probably felt they needed to stop the run more. Now, more teams are playing us pass first, run second. What we ultimately want to be is where the defense is somewhere in between."

Brackett faked an inside blitz before dropping back on a play he said he anticipated - the throw to Rice. Colts coach Jim Caldwell also said he expected the play to go to Rice.

Flacco accepted full responsibility for the play, and Rice scavenged for the silver lining.

"I don't like to say you want to make mistakes in that crucial part [of the game], but [if] you make that mistake now, you don't make that mistake in the future. That's part of our growing process," Rice said.

In his second season, Flacco has had some sterling veteran moments (three 300-yard plus passing games) mingled with the growing pains of youth (no touchdown passes in the past three games). He has, in the past month, seemingly reduced the offense to pitch-and-catch with wide-out Derrick Mason and checkdown target Rice. Of the 35 passes he threw against the Colts, 26 were intended for Mason or Rice.

Mason came down with nine catches worth 142 yards, while wide receivers Kelley Washington and Mark Clayton had two catches for 18 yards between them.

"Me and Mark are still running the route we normally do, we're still doing what we normally do," Washington said. "But there's times where Joe doesn't like the look [of the coverage]. It all depends on what Joe sees. He's got trust in Ray, and he's got trust in Derrick right now. I just think it'll come around."

Flacco obviously has confidence in Mason down the field but likes the dump-off to Rice when things look crowded. He said he doesn't believe he abandoned his progressions for the quick checkdown to Rice against Indianapolis.

"Really, I'm waiting for things to develop downfield and then just dump the ball to Ray because the coverage they played took it away," Flacco said. "I didn't go to Ray at all during the game too quickly when he was the checkdown guy. I didn't do that."

From his vantage point as former Colts coach and now as analyst for "Football Night in America," Tony Dungy can appreciate Flacco's fondness for Rice and Mason. He watched a young Peyton Manning lean heavily on Marvin Harrison early in his career in Indianapolis, with historic results.

"Quarterbacks develop confidence with certain guys," Dungy said. "When Peyton was young, he had so much confidence in Marvin, he would look for him an inordinate amount of times."

Dungy also sees some similarities between Flacco and second-year quarterback Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, who, like the Ravens, are 5-5 after making the playoffs last season. Ryan has had some growing pains, too, with 12 interceptions.

"Both rode that crest a year ago," Dungy said. "I was quite surprised how well they played. They exceeded the [learning] curve. Now the curve has come back to them. ... [But] they're still playing exceptionally well for young guys."

Against a Colts defense that was inexperienced at the corners, Flacco went outside often. According to the team's play-by-play statistics, he completed 12 of 13 passes to his left, 10 of 16 to his right and only one of five over the middle, with one spike.

Cameron said throwing over the middle is not an issue with Flacco, and that, "a lot of times it has to do with the corners."

Even though the game hinged on the interception over the middle, Cameron believes the experience will make Flacco and the Ravens better.

"These are the experiences that I think take guys to greatness," Cameron said. "Without these experiences, you can only be so good in this league. When something like this happens, all the things that go on is what makes these guys mentally tough."

If that's the case, Flacco should be mentally tougher against Pittsburgh because of last season's beatings. He completed just 40 of 89 passes against the Steelers (44.9 percent) for 448 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions.

He remembers. Sort of.

"We played them well the first game and lost," he said. "Played them well the second game and lost. Played them somewhat good the third game - we didn't play great - but we came back at the end and gave it up there. They're a tough team. We've played a lot of games this year that have been tough games and close games, and we haven't come out on the right side of any. We didn't come out on the right side of any against those guys last year.

"Eventually, we're going to have to learn from those situations. I think this game coming up and the six games we have left ... all those tight games are going to help us fight through those situations if they present themselves again."

Winning the tough games by making the big play is where Flacco and the Ravens need to go. Cameron thinks it's just a matter of time.

"Joe's a solid leader," Cameron said. "He's so steady in his approach. And his desire to be great is really heightened whenever he has something negative happen. He takes total ownership and responsibility of what takes place. To have that already, knowing he's just past the halfway point of his second year, is really pretty rare."

Joe Flacco: This season vs. last season

A look at the first 10 games of his rookie season and first 10 this season.

Year Att-Comp Yards Pct. TDs INTs Sacks Rating

2008 276-171 1,813 62.0 8 9 18 77.2

2009 335-219 2,455 65.4 12 8 18 89.1

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