- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

BALTIMORE | Joe Flacco has been studying the Baltimore Ravens playbook for months. He made it through four preseason games without throwing an interception, and has watched plenty of film on the Cincinnati Bengals.

All of that has been very helpful to the rookie quarterback. And it probably won’t mean a thing Sunday in his first NFL game.

Take it from someone who knows: There’s nothing a quarterback can do that will fully prepare himself for the experience of playing against 11 men whose sole objective is making his life miserable.

“You can do it during the preseason and during practice, but when you get on the field and see a fire zone coming at you or see man-to-man coverage on one side of the field, you have to know where to go,” Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said. “The confidence you have in knowing where to go in those situations is the toughest thing … and you really don’t have it or gain it until you do it.”

Drafted with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Flacco was immediately crowned the Ravens’ quarterback of the future. But a season-ending shoulder injury to Kyle Boller and Troy Smith’s prolonged bout with infected tonsils elevated Flacco into a starting role far sooner than anticipated.

Instead of learning while watching, the former Delaware star will be taught by experience.

“I’m sure a big part of their plan is to try to get to the quarterback and make him feel as uncomfortable as possible,” Flacco said.

Precisely. Cincinnati’s weakness in recent seasons, including last year’s 7-9 disaster, has been a tame defense. But new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has installed a more aggressive scheme, and the Bengals intend to do more than merely have their cornerbacks engage Baltimore’s receivers at the line.

“If the quarterback’s young, obviously you want to make things a little bit harder on him. He’s not going to have the vision like a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning would have,” cornerback Leon Hall said. “So we’re going to try to use his inexperience to our advantage. At the same time, you still have to go out and execute. You can’t just leave a guy wide open. Any quarterback can throw that ball.”

Provided he has the time. The success of the Baltimore offense could depend heavily on second-year pro Jared Gaither, who replaces retired left tackle Jonathan Ogden at the most pivotal position on the line. Gaither has six games of NFL experience and played in only one preseason game because of a high-ankle sprain.

The Ravens also have a problem at running back. Willis McGahee missed the entire preseason with a knee injury, and even if he plays Sunday, the layoff could affect his endurance and effectiveness.

Baltimore’s most significant newcomer is coach John Harbaugh, who’s been put in charge of turning around a team that went 5-11 last season under Brian Billick. Harbaugh never has been a head coach before, and, like Flacco, will find out whether football in August is anything like the real thing.

Cincinnati has also undergone a transformation from a year ago. Chris Perry takes over for Rudi Johnson at running back, the defense has been dramatically altered under Zimmer, and then there’s that change at wide receiver - where Chad Johnson has become Chad Ocho Cinco.

He may have a new name, but the Ravens expect to see - and hear - the same guy.

“Chad is definitely one of the best receivers in the league, hands down,” Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. “If you’re worried about him talking and not worried about what their offense is trying to do with him to put him in a position to make plays, that’s when you lose him.”

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