Much was made about the rookie Joe Flacco playing his first road contest in Heinz Field, in a rivalry game against the smash-mouth Pittsburgh Steelers, on the national platform of Monday Night Football.
After calmly leading two comebacks, including a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to knot the score at 20 and force overtime, the early reviews are positive.
Flacco's 16-of-31, 192-yard and one-touchdown outing showed that he could shake off having a fumble returned for a touchdown, five sacks from a relentless pass rush and even the wrath of 64,038 screaming Terrible Towel wavers.
Baltimore may have lost 23-20, but the Ravens were encouraged by what they saw from the young signal-caller.
"I think the performance speaks for itself," said head coach John Harbaugh. "There's a lot of football things. Detail issues, quarterback play, he can do better and learn to get better. He'll get better throughout his whole career, but he'll make big jumps now in his rookie year.
"I think we'll see them from practice to practice and week to week and game to game and whatnot, but he controlled himself and his handling of the offense, defense, managing the game himself."
The jitters were evident early. Flacco muffed his initial exchange with center Jason Brown and had to jump on the football. He then sailed a pass to wideout Derrick Mason during the first of two Ravens series that kicked off the game with three-and-outs.
But, he settled down midway through the opening quarter, taking advantage of an interception from Haloti Ngata to march 33 yards to within range of a Matt Stover field goal.
Flacco engineered 10 second-quarter points, capping the period with the first touchdown pass of his career, a 4-yard floater to tight end Daniel Wilcox.
"If we could've capped it off with a victory, it would've made the touchdown that much more special to me," Wilcox asserted.
The Ravens fell behind when Flacco was hit by linebacker James Harrison and fumbled deep in Baltimore territory. LaMarr Woodley scooped up the ball and scored from 7 yards out, pulling the Steelers out to a 17-13 lead and giving the capacity crowd new life.
Pittsburgh added another field goal in the fourth quarter to make the margin seven points.
Cheers from the stands were so loud, the press box at Heinz Field was literally shaking.
Still, Flacco maintained a level head through it all. He coolly tied the ballgame with a nine-play, 76-yard drive that ended with Le'Ron McClain's 2-yard touchdown run.
"He didn't get rattled," said Mason, who caught three passes for 60 yards on that final scoring drive. "He showed poise out there. That's all you can ask a young quarterback to do is to show poise amidst a lot of confusion. In that second half, they were throwing a lot of stuff at him.
"Through it all, he showed the poise of a veteran quarterback."
For a more fragile person, playing in front of such a large collection of people that want to take your head off would not be an attractive proposal.
For Flacco, it was another exciting experience to add to his building resume.
"It was pretty crazy," he said. "It was fun to go out there and deal with all of the boos and everything like that. It was an exciting game. Obviously, we came up on the short end, but we played hard, and we can't be ashamed of that."
Another Gift for Ngata
Ngata's first-quarter interception reminded many of the pick he snared in his inaugural NFL contest, the only other interception he's ever notched as a pro.
During a meeting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 10, 2006, Ngata saw a pass tipped by linebacker Bart Scott fall into his hands. The 6-foot-4, 345-pound Ngata then rumbled 60 yards to Tampa Bay's 9-yard line before he ran out of bounds.
This time, the football slipped out of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's hand as he was looking for tight end Heath Miller. Ngata, who was hurrying back to the middle when he saw it was a passing play after pursuing what he thought was a run, again cradled the gift.
However, Ngata wasn't running this interception anywhere. He was quickly taken down after a 1-yard return.
"I wasn't really expecting that play to come," Ngata said. "The ball just came in front of me. I think [Roethlisberger] didn't have a good hold of the ball because it came at me kind of wobbly but I'm happy that I caught it at least and try to make a play out of it.
"It was pretty much awesome, I just didn't get the yards."
The Ravens made cornerback Samari Rolle (shoulder/neck), safety Dawan Landry (neck), defensive tackle Kelly Gregg (knee),*linebacker Nick Greisen (quadriceps), offensive tackles Oniel Cousins and David Hale, and cornerback Evan Oglesby inactive and designated Troy Smith as the third quarterback…Pittsburgh was without offensive linemen Tony Hills and Trai Essex, receiver Limas Sweed, running back Willie Parker, linebacker Donovan Woods, defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, and made Dennis Dixon the third quarterback…Baltimore racked up 103 team rushing yards against the second-best run defense in the league. Fullback Le'Ron McClain led the way with 63 yards on 16 carries. McClain also had three receptions for 26 yards…The Ravens were a balanced offense, posting 33 rushing attempts to 21 passes. *
Ravens Gameday **