Flacco's Hot Streak Ends

By Mark Viera
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 19, 2009

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 18 -- In his charmed rookie season, Joe Flacco has been described as cool and confident. But against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, hurried was the adjective that fit the Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

Flacco found himself under siege throughout the night, and his inexperience showed at times in the face of Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense. He was sacked three times and threw three interceptions, completing 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards.

"I'm not blaming it on any rookie-wall stuff," Flacco said. "I don't believe in that stuff."

With less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Flacco threw an interception safety Troy Polamalu returned 40 yards for a touchdown. The mistake effectively ended the Ravens' hopes and provided the highlight moment for the Steelers, who punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLIII with a 23-14 win. Pittsburgh will face the Arizona Cardinals, who defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 32-25.

Asked if Flacco's performance was a product of the Steelers' staunch defense, Coach John Harbaugh said: "I'm not going to sit here and say Joe played a certain way. Joe went out there and competed and battled and fought and tried to find a way to win a football game."

Flacco was drafted with the 18th pick in the first round from the University of Delaware. In his first five games with the Ravens, he threw one touchdown and seven interceptions. Over the last 11 regular season games, though, Flacco threw 13 touchdowns and only five interceptions. The Ravens often took a conservative approach with Flacco.

In the playoffs, Flacco's legend grew. He became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two playoff games. In fact, he did not throw an interception and was not sacked in those games against the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans.

But Pittsburgh's defense presented a challenge on a vastly different scale. With a snarling pass rush, the Steelers hounded Flacco from the outset. In his first seven pass attempts, Flacco completed only a two-yard pass to Willis McGahee and also threw an interception to Deshea Townsend. Baltimore did not get a first down until there was 12 minutes 6 seconds left in the second quarter.

Flacco had space in the pocket, at times, but appeared reluctant to improvise by running with the ball. Without options open downfield, he threw the ball away instead of tucking it in his arms. And when he when he did try to throw on the run, he was inaccurate or victimized by dropped passes.

Unlike Flacco, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was creative when flushed and bought himself time against the Ravens' rush. He completed 16 of 33 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown; he was sacked four times.

When Roethlisberger was a rookie during the 2004 season, he threw three interceptions in a 41-27 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. On Sunday, Flacco looked like a newcomer for the first time in this postseason.

"I don't think he was placing balls where he was supposed to," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It was their night. They made some plays. They tipped balls in the air, he was hit as he threw. It happens."

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