- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

OWINGS MILLS, Md. | The NFL’s second-ranked defense powered the Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs.

But Baltimore had the league’s sixth-best defense in 2007 and finished 5-11. What has changed for the 11-5 Ravens is an offense that blossomed in the second half of the season with rookie Joe Flacco at quarterback. Baltimore’s offense has averaged 33.5 points in going 9-2 down the stretch to earn a date Sunday in Miami against the AFC East champion Dolphins.

“I see the maturity of Joe Flacco,” coach Tony Sparano said. “Since the last time we played him, he’s been in a lot of big ballgames and has rose to the occasion a bunch. You can [see his] confidence back there in the pocket. They’re doing an awful lot more with him than maybe they were then. It really does impress me an awful lot for a rookie in this kind of situation.”

Flacco, chosen 18th in the draft, inherited the job after Steve McNair retired and holdovers Kyle Boller and Troy Smith were felled by injury and illness in the preseason.

After compiling a 60.6 passer rating with one touchdown and seven interceptions in the 2-3 start, Flacco caught fire, posting a 90.2 rating since with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. On Sunday, he’s slated to become just the eighth rookie quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to start a playoff game - and just the fourth in the past 17 seasons.

“I knew Joe would be a good player, just seeing the guy in preseason,” receiver Derrick Mason said. “The biggest surprise is that he’s so calm and has that poise of a veteran quarterback.”

Indeed, Flacco, who said the most nervous he has ever been was before his quarterback debut in seventh grade, termed the playoff contest “just another game.” No wonder linebacker Ray Lewis, who has played with 15 starting quarterbacks in 13 years as the heart and soul of the Ravens, said Flacco is different.

“Once one good play or bad play is gone, [Flacco lets] it go,” Lewis said. “A lot of guys can’t do that. Joe is one of those gifted ones. He’s going to be a special kid. You can see that in his demeanor, the way he gets guys going, the way he plays the game. He has every athletic attribute to play the quarterback position.”

But the offense is more than just Flacco. Mason caught 80 passes. Mark Clayton averaged 17 yards a catch. Backs Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice kept pounding away as the Ravens led the league in time of possession and finished fourth in rushing.

Not one of the five starting lineman was a regular at the same spot in 2006. Right tackle Willie Anderson was with Cincinnati. Center Jason Brown was the left guard. Right guard Chris Chester was a backup. Left tackle Jared Gaither (Maryland) and left tackle Ben Grubbs were in college.

“This offense is much better than it was two years ago,” Mason said. “I knew in the spring that the line was going to be good, and that was going to be the key to our success.”

Offensive tackle Adam Terry said offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Miami’s coach in its ugly 1-15 season of 2007, deserves credit for his creativity. Not only has Terry also played tight end, but nose tackle Haloti Ngata has lined up as a lead blocker. Flacco caught a 43-yard touchdown from Smith. And there have been direct snaps to ballcarriers in the Wildcat formation.

“There’s wrinkles every week,” Terry said. “Cam schemes it up, and we just execute. He knows who he can use and when he should use it. Baltimore is rightfully known for its defense, but we’re starting to make our way to a respectable offense and trying to put our name out there.”

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