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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — What was once brushed off as a slow start can no longer be ignored by the Ravens as Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice averaged less than 2.0 yards per carry for the second straight week in Sunday’s 20-17 overtime win over the Bengals.
For the better part of a month, questions have persisted about Rice’s health after he suffered a hip flexor injury in Week 2 and have gone as far as wondering whether the sixth-year running back is reaching the end of the road as a productive player. Whatever the cause, coach John Harbaugh can no longer ignore Rice’s 2.5 yards per carry average in eight games this season after he gained only 30 yards on 18 carries against the Cincinnati defense on Sunday.
Three or four underwhelming games per season can be chalked up to playing strong front sevens, but Rice has gained only 289 yards on the ground and hasn’t shown elusiveness when catching passes in the open field, averaging a career-low 4.9 yards per reception. Certainly a porous offensive line has played an overwhelming role in limiting Rice’s running room, but the Baltimore coach acknowledged health still being a factor for Rice despite his claims since before the bye in late October that he was 100 percent physically.
“You’ve got to look at the numbers, and definitely, it’s not the same,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no doubt about that, so what is it? It’s injury or it’s not as much room to run, or it’s both. His health has been a factor. There’s no doubt about it. He’s working hard to become healthier; that’s important [to] get past that hip flexor. That’s a muscle injury, and it’s hard to predict exactly what impact that has, but you’ve got to assume it’s had an impact.”
Perhaps Rice’s biggest defense of his performance this season has been the underwhelming numbers of second-year running back Bernard Pierce, who is averaging only 2.8 yards per carry and has battled a nagging hamstring injury that now appears fully recovered. Though not posting numbers on Sunday that would be confused with all-world running back Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, Pierce collected 31 yards on eight carries against the Bengals and displayed more explosiveness than seen from him in quite some time.
With the Ravens desperate to generate any production from a running game averaging a league-worst 2.8 yards per carry, Harbaugh was asked Monday whether he’d consider using Pierce as his feature back with Rice playing more of a secondary role. The coach’s answer was predictable in trying to protect his struggling No. 1 back, but he left the door open for altering how the workload is distributed in the coming weeks.
We can only wait to see how it plays out starting on Sunday in Chicago against a Bears defense ranked 31st against the run and giving up 4.5 yards per carry.
“Both of those guys are going to play,” Harbaugh said. “What would [making Pierce the starter] mean? One guy’s a feature back by definition? Both of those guys are going to get a large number of carries and I think whichever guy’s playing better should get more carries as we go forward. Bernard’s had his hamstring issues the last five weeks, which he seems to be coming out of. Ray’s had his hip issue since the second game, but he seems to be coming out of that. Both of those guys seem to be getting healthier. That’s a plus for us.”
Critics will interpret Harbaugh’s nonspecific answer as nothing more than coach speak, but there is precedent for an effective Pierce — and it’s important to remember his numbers have only been minimally better than Rice’s this season — receiving a larger number of carries that cuts into the veteran’s workload.
Late last season when Pierce began earning his reputation as a physical runner capable of gaining yards after contact, the Ravens fed him the ball 14 times for 123 yards in a Week 16 win over the New York Giants. However, Rice was also effective in that division-clinching win as he gained 107 yards on 24 carries.
The Ravens’ willingness to give Pierce the ball was more evident in the wild card playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts when the carry distribution was nearly even as Rice gained 68 yards on 15 attempts and Pierce rushed for a game-high 103 yards on 13 carries. However, the workload became unbalanced once again for the rest of the postseason as Pierce dealt with nagging injuries.
It’s easy to bury Rice by suggesting the Ravens give the ball to Pierce — who only outperformed Rice substantially in yards per carry for the second time this season on Sunday — and put the veteran on the back burner, but the 2012 third-round pick has been bothered by various ailments in his brief NFL career while Rice has remained durable for most of his six seasons and played four full seasons between missed games at the professional level until he was sidelined with the hip injury earlier this year.
“Both of those guys have to play for us and play well,” Harbaugh said. “You can’t have one back carrying the ball 35 times nowadays, and we don’t need to do that. We think we’ve got two very good backs.”