It was only three years ago that Joe Flacco found himself in a similar position to Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, who faces the biggest challenge of his infant career in taking on the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round this Sunday.
Preparing to play his first road playoff game against the Miami Dolphins, a game in which the Ravens won 27-9, Flacco wasn’t caught up in the moment of playing in the postseason a year after starring for the University of Delaware. Instead, the nonchalant rookie was simply focusing on what he needed to do to prepare to get a victory.
“I wasn’t really thinking about playing on the road at the time; it was kind of just what we had to do,” Flacco said. “It was the position we were in, and we had to go get a win. There’s a lot to be made about playing at home [versus] playing on the road. But, the bottom line is when you’re out on the field and when you’re out there running plays and trying to execute them well, you’re not really thinking about, ‘Man, I’m not at home today. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to hit this pass as easily.’”
Unlike Flacco, who was a first-round pick and had a full season of starts under his belt by the time the Ravens traveled to Miami in the first round of the playoffs, Yates was forced into this position after injuries to starting quarterback Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart. And though he helped guide the Texans to a 31-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round last Saturday, the fifth-round pick went from being inactive every week to the Texans’ starting quarterback in a matter of a week in late November.
To his credit, the North Carolina product hasn’t crumbled under the pressure of taking the reins of an AFC South champion team that had Super Bowl aspirations before Schaub was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury. Playing in a pro-style offense under Tar Heels coach Butch Davis in Chapel Hill, Yates has a solid grasp of Houston’s system in a limited amount of playing time. Even if his skill set falls short of Flacco’s abilities, listening to teammates describe his demeanor makes you think of the Baltimore signal caller.
“He’s very confident in what he can do,” Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson said. “If something is bothering him, he does a great job of hiding it. He doesn’t show it. He doesn’t show when he’s frustrated or anything. He just stays calm.”
That resiliency will be tested on Sunday more than at any point at any level of his football career as Yates tries to become the first rookie quarterback to defeat the Ravens in Baltimore since Arizona’s Jake Plummer did it at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 23, 1997.
On that day, a 22-year-old Ray Lewis stared across the line of scrimmage at Plummer, just like he will at Yates at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday where the Ravens haven’t lost all season as they try to advance to the AFC championship game for just the third time in franchise history. The vaunted Baltimore defense will undoubtedly try to rattle the 24-year-old by bringing pressure early and often.
Holding up against a Cincinnati defense in the friendly confines of Reliant Stadium is one thing, but standing up to a Ravens defense whose play rises to another level at home is another.
How much can the unit affect the young quarterback, who was holding a clipboard on the sideline when the teams met back in mid-October?
“I don’t know,” Lewis said. “You can probably only tell by how hard you hit him, if you get to him early. You really can’t tell. We understand that they have a rookie quarterback, but we also understand that they are the No. 2 rush offense in football.”
Of course, the 36-year-old linebacker is exactly right. Since taking over the starting job due to attrition, Yates has been more caretaker and less playmaker as the Texans have relied even more heavily on their running game. Playing the final six games of the regular season, the 6-foot-4 quarterback threw only 134 passes with three touchdowns and three interceptions.