OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After watching Buccaneers rookie running back Doug Martin run for 251 yards against the Raiders in Week 9, Ray Rice tried to downplay what it meant as the Ravens prepare to welcome Oakland to Baltimore on Sunday.
But it’s only human nature for a Pro Bowl running back to be licking his chops after seeing a defense show such vulnerability.
“Obviously, you look at it,” Rice said, “and you do start getting excited when you see it happening.”
Rice was quick to point out reasons why the Raiders front seven allowed Martin to run all over them in a 42-32 loss, pointing to several occasions when Oakland defenders missed tackles that transformed modest gains into lucrative runs. It’s never a one-size-fits-all comparison from week to week in the NFL, but the Ravens have examined how they can exploit Oakland’s 21st-ranked defense in a similar manner as they begin the second half of the regular-season schedule.
The 278 rushing yards allowed by the Raiders in Week 9 pushed their season average to 124.1 per game on the ground after they had only allowed 102.1 rushing yards per contest through their first seven games, which would have landed them in the 11th spot in the league this week. While Rice and the Ravens are likely to test Oakland’s run defense in trying to win their 15th straight home game, they won’t count solely on the ground game to do it.
“When you look at the tape, you understand why those things happened,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They can play a lot better against the run. They do play better against the run. There are four or five plays in there that just went big for them. You see all those other plays where they do a great job, and they’ve got a real physical front.”
Despite an uneven performance in Cleveland last week, the Ravens displayed a renewed commitment to Rice and the running game after criticism of going away from it on several occasions earlier this season. The Pro Bowl back rushed for 98 yards on 25 carries, which wasn’t exactly a sterling day statistically, but the heavy workload could signal offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s renewed confidence in the back to grind out wins in the second half of the season, especially on the road where the Ravens’ passing game has faltered.
The consummate team player, Rice always says the right thing, but you don’t reach his level of success without wanting the ball in your hands as much as possible. And the numbers prove it’s not a bad strategy as the fifth-year back has run for 622 yards on 131 carries (4.7 yards per attempt), which is 90 more yards than he gained on two fewer carries through the first eight games last season.
“I’ve never been a guy to say, ‘Give me this. Give me that,'” Rice said. “To be able to stick with the run [in Cleveland] no matter what it was, and on first down knowing we were going to dial it, it felt good. It felt good to get my young guy in there, Bernard Pierce, to switch it up. That one-two punch was really working.”
Pierce’s reliability as a rookie will alleviate the pressure on Rice in the second half of the season when the feature back figures to carry a heavier workload anyway, and the rookie from Temple has rushed for 148 yards on 30 carries this season.
Even with the helping hand, Rice figures to become even more important over the season’s final eight games and Cameron has said repeatedly that the Ravens have been cognizant of the running back’s carries in order to keep him fresh later in the season. After carrying only 133 times in the first half of the 2011 season, Rice received 158 attempts in the final eight games and rushed for 832 yards on his way to leading the league in yards from scrimmage.
The Ravens will need a similar herculean effort from Rice as four of their eight second-half games come against top-10 run defenses, including two with the Pittsburgh Steelers. A productive running game will only make things easier for quarterback Joe Flacco, who has struggled on the road this season, as the Ravens attempt to advance to the postseason for the fifth straight season.
“Later in the year as it gets cold, you know you have to run the ball a little bit more and be effective,” Rice said. “But that’s something that we want to grow as. We are going to get better as a run group.”