For much of the first four weeks of the season, the Ravens have been working with an offense which features a recently constructed offensive line and a passing attack composed of two fairly inexperienced second-year tight ends, a host of rookie wide receivers and just one veteran wideout.
Doesn’t exactly sound like an ideal situation, does it?
Through it all, one player has carried the offensive attack, and he’s done it with flair, juking defenders out of their cleats and racking up highlight reel plays seemingly every single Sunday.
Running back Ray Rice currently leads the Ravens in not just rushing yards (297), but he’s also tied for the team lead in receptions (16) and ranks first on the team in receiving yards (242). Rice has scored four of the Ravens’ nine offensive touchdowns, and is averaging over 15 yards per reception - an insane number for a running back.
Now in his fourth NFL season, Rice has quietly emerged as one of the top backs in the league, and he’s been a godsend for the Ravens through the early part of the season, stabilizing a unit which has experienced injuries and rotated in a batch of players new to the team’s offensive system.
“That’s a guy that is a staple for us,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s an anchor for us, and he’s been doing it again this year while these other guys continue to develop.”
The bulk of Rice’s impact is felt in the running game, where he’s averaging 4.5 yards per carry and 74 yards per game, all with defenses focusing specifically on slowing him down. His speed and agility allow him to turn a two-yard gain into a 22-yard gain, and his powerful frame makes him tough to bring down with arm tackles.
On top of that, a large part of what makes the Rutgers product such a dynamic playmaker is that his skills translate to the passing game, as well. Rice has become a vital part of the Ravens’ aerial attack, as he’s developed into a trusted check-down option for quarterback Joe Flacco when deeper routes are covered, and he has the athleticism to line up out wide or in the slot, as well.
A prime example of Rice’s receiving ability was seen last Sunday against the Jets, when he lined up in the backfield, but went in motion to the left. Flacco hit Rice on a crossing route with a perfectly thrown pass, and the running back did the rest, shaking free of safety Eric Smith, dancing away from would-be tacklers and rumbling 53 yards down the sideline.
“I’ll tell you, I marveled at that catch he made across the middle,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a legitimate, premier playmaker in the National Football League; he really has been since his rookie year.”
If there’s any knock on Rice, it might be that he doesn’t get the ball enough. Last season, Rice averaged 23 touches a game, and that was with Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain sharing the carries, as well.
The Ravens talked this offseason about returning to their physical running game, and they went out and signed fullback Vonta Leach and re-upped guard Marshal Yanda to help them grind out the tough yards on the ground. Still, with the Ravens relying more on a passing attack through the first four games, Rice is down to 20 touches (and 16 carries) per game this year.
Regardless of how he gets the ball in his hands, good things seem to happen when Rice is in the open field, spinning away from defenders and churning out yardage. That’s something which isn’t lost on linebacker Jarret Johnson, who competes against Rice every day in practice and has a chance to watch the running back work up close.
“He’s an elite back,” Johnson said. “He’s as good as there is in the league. Obviously, his quickness, his lateral movement, is what scares defenses the most. He gets any amount of green grass, and I mean a yard, and he can make you miss. But, he brings it all to the package. He’s great out of the backfield. He’s great in pass protection; you saw how physical he was picking up a couple of those blitzes (against the Jets).
“You really can’t say enough about Ray Rice. The more he touches the football, the better we are as a football team.”