I have not-so-fond memories of two summers ago when many NFL players and pundits spent the long NFL lockout ripping Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. We had a running photo gallery going and whenever somebody took another shot at Flacco, I tacked on another slide. A few of the shots came from Pittsburgh Steelers.
Nearly two years -- and two Ravens victories over the Steelers -- later, it seems the perception of Flacco has changed in the Steelers locker room. Or maybe they just got better at keeping their comments out of the blogosphere. But the Steelers I spoke with Thursday showed the fifth-year Ravens quarterback respect.
"They've got a lot of speed going on, but it starts off with Flacco," cornerback Keenan Lewis said. "He's a good quarterback who can make every throw out there. He probably has one of the best deep balls in the NFL, so we're aware of that. They've got Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith. We've got to cover those guys."
Flacco exorcised some demons against the Steelers last season, throwing for 524 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in two Ravens wins, including a victory at Heinz Field when Flacco tossed the Ravens down the field on a 92-yard drive that ended with him throwing the game-winning touchdown to Smith.
This season, Flacco has completed 60.2 percent of his attempts for 2,331 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He is on pace to set a career high in yards, and he could set a new high in touchdowns, too.
Lewis noted that Flacco is spreading the ball around, too. Flacco has targeted four players -- Smith, Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta and Ray Rice -- more than 50 times and seven Ravens have more than 10 receptions.
"He's trusting in his receivers a lot more. You can tell he's spreading the ball to everybody," said Lewis, who starts in the Steelers secondary. "So when you have confidence in those guys, he's playing with more confidence and you see that on film. He's been real impressive. We have come to come out there and stop him."
Nose tackle Casey Hampton sees a difference in the Ravens, too. He said stopping Rice will be a challenge as usual, but the Steelers also know that the Ravens passing attack has taken off as Flacco continues to grow.
"He's throwing the ball quite a bit," Hampton said. "He's doing a good job of putting numbers on the board. I think they're kind of switching over from running so much. But with the receivers they've got, you've got to do that."