So when Flacco was in the familiar position of needing a late touchdown drive to win in the fourth quarter Sunday against Pittsburgh, the third-year quarterback could take two paths: continue getting bested by Dick LeBeau's scheme or show growth and maturity and lead Baltimore to a rare win at Heinz Field.
A calm and precise Flacco did the latter by leading the Ravens to a winning touchdown with 32 seconds remaining in Baltimore's 17-14 come-from-behind win, the Ravens' first in Pittsburgh since 2006. Pittsburgh and its home crowd were stunned as Flacco grew up right before their eyes, driving the Ravens 40 yards and connecting with receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh for an 18-yard touchdown in what was the biggest throw of Flacco's young career.
Flacco has won playoff games and he beat the Steelers (minus an injured Ben Roethlisberger) once in Baltimore last season. But he has never been the major reason for those victories. Flacco's clutch completions at the end of this game finally made him the hero in this huge matchup. The win, which improved Flacco's record to 2-4 against the Steelers, put the Ravens (3-1) in first in the AFC North.
"I think there are going to be a lot of defining moments for Joe, but this is going to be one of them," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "And this is going to be one that all the Ravens' fans out there are going to remember for a long time."
Flacco, who rarely shows a lot of emotion, was overjoyed.
"You blow somebody out and that’s fun and all," Flacco said. "But when the game is that close through it all and you go and win it on the last drive, there's no other better ways to win a game. It was awesome."
After a slow start to the season, Baltimore's touted offense was beginning to draw criticism.
Even with the addition of former Pro Bowl receivers Anquan Boldin and Houshmandzadeh to go with Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain, the Ravens entered Week 4 ranked 23rd in offense. Except for Flacco, each of the aforementioned skill players has been to the Pro Bowl, so it was natural to point the finger at the young quarterback.
"I can be the bad guy; I'm OK with that," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "I want don't want the quarterback to ever be the bad guy. We've watched that unfold in this league, and that's where you have a problem."
Instead of smash-mouth football, Baltimore attacked Pittsburgh (3-1) with short and intermediate passes to loosen up the defense. Flacco was 24-for-37 for 256 yards, completing passes to seven different receivers. The Ravens, led by McGahee's 39 yards on 14 rushing attempts, knew they wouldn't have much success on the ground.
The Ravens also protected Flacco well, which hasn't been the norm against Pittsburgh. The Steelers only registered one sack. Most importantly, Flacco didn't lose his composure after finally making a mistake and throwing a second-half interception that could have been costly. Pittsburgh's defense usually feeds off mistakes, especially at home.
"Joe reminds me of Carson [Palmer]," Houshmandzadeh said of his former Bengals' teammate. "He's quiet, calm, cool and nothing bothers him."
Baltimore held the Steelers to 210 yards and stifled veteran backup quarterback Charlie Batch (141 yards passing), who started for perhaps the last time this season because Roethlisberger will return Monday from a four-game suspension. McGahee had a tough inside run for a 9-yard touchdown, and Boldin and Mason combined for 13 catches and 148 yards.
But in the big picture, Sunday's game was about Flacco. It's no secret he must beat Pittsburgh consistently to have long-term success in his career with the Ravens. One drive does not make a season, but Baltimore may look back at Flacco's performance Sunday and mark it as the first time its young quarterback got over a huge mental and physical hurdle.