How does Rice fit into Ravens’ running game woes?

October 16, 2013 | Luke Jones

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Ravens running back Ray Rice knew nothing but success in the first five years of his NFL career.

With three Pro Bowl selections, over 5,000 rushing yards, and more than 2,700 receiving yards, the 26-year-old had firmly cemented his place as one of the league’s top running backs and appeared on schedule to easily supplant Jamal Lewis as the Ravens’ all-time leading rusher at some point late in the 2014 season. That’s what makes his start to the 2013 season that much more alarming as the Ravens figured to lean more on the running game after the offseason trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the long-term hip injury suffered by tight end Dennis Pitta in the first week of training camp.

Baltimore ranks 27th in the league in rush offense with just 72.7 yards per game and is 31st of 32 teams with an anemic 2.7 yards per carry. Through the first six weeks of the season, Rice has managed just 197 yards on 71 carries and has averaged 2.8 yards per carry, 1.7 yards lower than his career average entering the season.

Labeling himself “a little frustrated” with the overall lack of production in the running game following Sunday’s 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers, Rice has run for no gain or negative yardage on 20 of his 71 carries this season. No one would blame him for being frustrated as he finds himself with a long run of 14 yards on the season and ranked 34th in the NFL in rushing as even three quarterbacks — Michael Vick, Russell Wilson, and Terrelle Pryor — have collected more yards on the ground than the 2008 second-round pick.

Once holding the undisputed title as the Ravens’ most explosive offensive weapon, Rice is now part of a running game on pace to shatter the franchise record for fewest yards per attempt average as the 2006 Ravens — a team that ironically finished with a franchise-best regular-season record of 13-3 — collected 3.4 yards per rush for the lowest mark in the team’s 18-year history.

“Ray has handled it as well as you can,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “Obviously, you’re going to be frustrated, especially when you’re him [and] you’re used to producing a certain way. He’s not putting himself above anything else. The biggest thing is that we haven’t been winning and we haven’t been doing as well as we wanted to on offense. It’s not necessarily about him and his own stats.”

Of course, no one would dispute the poor performance of the offensive line as the greatest cause for the running game woes — Rice and second-year backup Bernard Pierce are each averaging 2.8 yards per carry and aren’t finding any consistent room to run — but trying to evaluate just how well Rice is performing has been tricky this season. Before offering any potential criticism of Rice, it’s fair to acknowledge Pierce hasn’t fared any better after many wondered in the offseason if the Ravens should use more of a 50-50 split this year.

Any assessment of Rice’s play must acknowledge the left hip flexor strain he suffered in the Week 2 win over the Cleveland Browns, an injury that forced him to miss his first game since his rookie season when he was sidelined for three games with a shin injury. While not a serious injury by nature, a hip ailment would understandably hamper any shifty runner such as Rice who depends on lateral movement and the ability to change direction quickly.

Coach John Harbaugh deferred to Rice when asked how healthy his starting running back was — Rice wasn’t made available to the media on Wednesday — but it isn’t unfair to wonder how healthy the sixth-year back may be as the Ravens play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday before entering next week’s bye.

“He was banged up for a couple weeks, and this is really his first couple weeks back,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “Anytime you get a little banged up and aren’t 100 percent, you have to take a little bit of time before you can really expect to be back there and have full explosion.”

While the offensive line has faced the most scrutiny as its struggled to adapt to run-game coordinator Juan Castillo’s zone blocking schemes, Harbaugh has acknowledged the need for the running backs to show better vision in reading blocks and being more explosive in hitting their running lanes — no matter how small they might be.

Many observers have opined that both Rice and Pierce have appeared hesitant in hitting holes, pointing to examples over the first six weeks of the season where holes were missed or cutback opportunities weren’t taken when the offensive line managed to do its job effectively. Just like any other position on the field, a running back isn’t immune from losing confidence in not just the players around him but himself when the ground game isn’t clicking.

Lewis, one of only seven players in NFL history to run for over 2,000 yards in a season, recalled times in his career in which a lack of confidence in what was happening up front hindered his ability to make plays even when the running lanes were there. The Ravens’ Ring of Honor member saw his 5.3 yards per carry average in his 2003 Pro Bowl season drop nearly two full yards per attempt just two years later.

“I’ve had a few years where you were hesitant [and] not sure in your line’s ability in blocking this scheme,” Lewis told AM 1570 WNST on Tuesday. “Is your line too light for the scheme you are running? When you do that, and that sinks in, it’s a mental thing that can really hurt you. You’ll never get on track. It’s kind of feeling it out, dealing with it, finding a solution to the problem. But, you just can’t have the hesitation because there’s going to be wide-open holes and you’re going to miss [them]. It’s more of a ‘hit it where it’s supposed to go.’

“Look at Adrian Peterson. When he hits the hole, if it’s closed, he bounces off and he hits the next one. At the same time, this is the NFL, it closes up quickly. It’s not always a hole as wide as all daylight.”