OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The two shortest players on the field at EverBank Field in Jacksonville will have the biggest impact when the Ravens face the Jacksonville Jaguars in a primetime meeting on Monday night.
It’s the same story every week for the 5-foot-8 Ray Rice and Jacksonville’s 5-foot-7 Maurice Jones-Drew as they’re each the most dynamic player on their respective offenses. Rice is responsible for 38.1 percent of Baltimore’s offensive production while Jones-Drew accounts for 41.4 percent of Jacksonville’s total yardage.
Both will be opposed by defenses familiar with going against a small-statured back every day in practice, but Jones-Drew will deal with the third-ranked rush defense while the 1-5 Jaguars only offer the 19th-best unit when it comes to stopping the run.
“They are facing our defense — a great defense,” Rice said. “We get to face them. Regardless of their record, they have a great defense, we all know. You sort of have a little battle — myself vs. Jones-Drew. Let’s see who comes out as the better running back that day. It’s just a nice game, nice Monday Night Football game. It doesn’t matter what anybody’s record is, [on] Monday Night Football, a lot of great players and legacies have been made.”
Jones-Drew ranks third in the league in rushing (572 yards in seven games) and second in attempts, all while defenses key on him exclusively since Jacksonville possesses the worst passing offense in the NFL. The sixth-year back ran for 96 yards on 22 carries against Pittsburgh in a narrow 17-13 loss at Heinz Field last Sunday and gathered 85 rushing yards two weeks ago against Cincinnati, who possesses the second-ranked defense in the league.
Jones-Drew’s recent production against two AFC North rivals was more than enough to grab the Ravens’ attention in a game that otherwise appears to be a mismatch on paper.
“They’ve got a premier running game with one of the very best backs in the National Football League,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Major tackle-breaker. This guy breaks them, he’s elusive, he makes you miss. [I] had a chance to work him out when he was at UCLA, way back when, when he came out and he’s really a great young man, too.”
Rice has benefited from playing in a more balanced offense as well as utilizing his own skill set that includes catching more passes out of the backfield. Of Rice’s 700 total yards of offense for the season, 302 have come via the air while catching screens and check-downs or even splitting out as a receiver on a number of occasions.
In contrast, Jones-Drew amasses yardage with a more physical style between the tackles. Even when defenders are able to spot the diminutive runner behind a massive offensive line, bringing him to the ground can be a different challenge entirely.
“He plays the game very hard,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “He runs the ball very hard. And one thing you do see on film, more than anything, is you see him making a lot of people miss, because people are really just bouncing right off him. Some people are squared up right in the hole — you watch the Pittsburgh game that they played last week — and he broke a couple tackles just right in the hole. That’s just his leverage. He’s one of those smaller backs that can get behind those linemen and hide and get up out of there. I just think, overall, he’s a complete back.”
Rice has faced off against an impressive list of backs through the first five weeks of the season, but going up against Jones-Drew will present the latest personal challenge for the Ravens’ dynamic playmaker. The two spent time together at the 2009 Pro Bowl, cultivating a friendship and competitive rivalry they’ll be able to continue on Monday night — even if the game winds up a mismatch.
The Ravens star back isn’t losing perspective on what’s really important, but the competitor in him wants to continue the early-season trend he’s started against the likes of Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson.
“You want to do well, because he is a great running back,” Rice said. “He has proven [himself] in this league. Arian Foster was the guy last week — he was the NFL’s leader in rushing last year. You want to kind of have that battle to get you up, but at the same time, the overall goal is to win the game.”