This year’s struggles aside, the whispers started last season about Rice not appearing quite as explosive as in previous years. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry — down from 4.7 in 2011 — and gained 2.3 yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus. The latter statistic was considerably lower than Pierce’s 3.4, a major reason why the physical 2012 third-round pick saw an increased role late in the season.
This year, Rice is averaging just 1.6 yards after contact, which isn’t terribly surprising considering how often defenders have met Baltimore ballcarriers in the backfield. In comparison, Pierce’s yards after contact is down to to just 1.9 yards per attempt.
With the Ravens struggling to find any room in the running game, it’s only natural to suggest more opportunities for Rice in the passing game, where he’s earned the reputation of being a home-run hitter as the San Diego Chargers painfully learned last season after a miraculous fourth-and-29 conversion on a Flacco check-down to the running back. Harbaugh agreed Monday that he’d like to see the running back get the ball in open space even more if the situation calls for it.
“Ray getting receptions is a good thing. When he gets the ball in space and makes plays, it’s positive for us,” Harbaugh said. “He had a few [against Green Bay] — had the one in the flat [and] their linebacker made a nice play. He had a couple in the check-down area where he made some nice plays. That’s always a good thing, especially when they push their coverage out a little bit underneath some of our routes. That should open up for us.”
Rice’s increased involvement in the passing game sounds elementary in theory, but it’s in this area where the biggest — and perhaps fairest — questions have been raised as his 20 receptions — right in line with his career average of four catches per game — have only gone for 87 yards, a 4.4 yards per catch average that is a shell of his 8.5 yards per reception average for his career. Rarely has Rice been able to shake defenders in the open field this season as typically the first man he encounters has been able to bring him down for a minimal gain.
How much the hip injury continues to be a factor is anyone’s guess, but the perceived decline in elusiveness begs the most concerning hypothesis of all when it comes to the Pro Bowl running back.
Is Rice beginning to slow down?
The shelf life for a running back is a brief one in most instances and while he’s carried the ball more than 300 times in a season only once in his professional career (307 in 2010), the 910 times he carried the football in his three seasons at Rutgers were an extraordinary total that dwarfed the collegiate workloads of several of the league’s current top backs including Peterson (747), LeSean McCoy (584), Arian Foster (650), Marshawn Lynch (490), and Frank Gore (197). We’re often guilty of viewing NFL rookie running backs as shiny new toys in mint condition, but in reality, the tread began wearing on their tires years earlier.
Those numbers don’t necessarily mean Rice is wearing down significantly, but they are simple realities for an NFL running back that can’t be ignored. And his slight 5-foot-8, 212-pound frame doesn’t help in trying to project him to be a long-term workhorse despite his ability to remain so healthy to this point in his pro career.
It’s nearly impossible to accurately judge Rice’s play behind such a porous offensive line in a sample size of only five games, but the numbers are just too ugly not to be concerned wherever you look in the running game. And if you point to the hip injury to explain his lack of explosiveness and inability to make tacklers miss, the Ravens can only hope next week’s bye is an elixir to make him more productive in the second half of the season.
Whatever the case, the Ravens need running-game improvement across the board — from the offensive line, from Rice, and from Pierce — to improve their chances of advancing to the postseason for a sixth straight season. It’s unlikely to see the offensive line fixed completely, so it will be on the running backs to make the most of what little room they’re given.
“I’ve watched Rice and I’ve watched Pierce, and you can tell the hesitation,” Lewis said. “It’s more of a [question] of, ‘Do you have confidence in the system? Do you have confidence in your offensive line? Do you have confidence in yourself?'”