Rice’s emergence sparks Ravens offense

Ray Lewis(notes), the Baltimore Ravens’ second-oldest player, sees echoes of himself in the team’s youngest player, Ray Rice(notes).

Rice (left) and Lewis talk during the Ravens' game vs. Detroit.
(Geoff Burke-US Presswire)

Rice returns the favor. The 22-year-old second-year pro and diminutive running back looks up to the linebacker as the pinnacle of professionalism.

Lewis, 34, spends hours studying film, has a reputation for working harder than any other Raven and displays outstanding toughness and leadership off the field.

“Ray Lewis has been a mentor, a brother to me, and more than anything, a leader,” said Rice, whose Ravens face the New England Patriots in Sunday’s AFC wild-card game. “I’m on the offensive side, but if you watch the guy, the way he plays the game, and if you just take a little bit of what he does it, and the way he does it, how can you not be successful?”

Lewis has tutored dozens of Ravens, but his closest relationships generally have been with other linebackers or University of Miami alums. Rice is neither. Nonetheless, Lewis eagerly sought him out soon after Baltimore drafted him in the second round out of Rutgers in April of 2008.

“I formed a bond with him from day one,” Lewis said. “I pretty much watched his whole career in college. So the day I got the opportunity to meet him, I told him exactly that. I just love his spirit. I love his will. I love his heart. I love the way he approaches the game.”

And at this point, Lewis has to love Rice’s production.

The 5-foot-8 Rice was named to his first Pro Bowl this year, finishing second in the league in yards from scrimmage (2,041) behind Tennessee Titans tailback Chris Johnson’s 2,509.

Rice’s 78 catches for 702 yards led NFL running backs and he was sixth in the league in rushing with 1,339 yards, averaging 5.3 per carry. He has become the engine driving Baltimore’s offense.

“In order to be successful, it’s important to give him the ball,” Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) said of Rice. “He makes plays and scores touchdowns. When you’ve got a guy that’s like that, you’ve got to make sure you do all the things you can to give him the ball.”

That was clearly a priority for the Ravens this season.

As a rookie, Rice was a role player, and part of a three-running back committee along with Willis MaGahee and Le’Ron McClain(notes). Primarily used as a third-down back, Rice rushed for 454 yards and caught 33 passes in ’08.

While his numbers were respectable enough, Rice was bothered by how he finished the season.

He suffered a contusion in his left shin during a Week 14 victory over the Redskins and played sparingly the rest of the season. He wasn’t a factor in the final three regular-season games and three playoff contests.

Determined to play more in 2009, Rice engaged in a grueling offseason workout program and added five pounds of muscle to his 210-pound frame.

“It was my big offseason goal,” Rice said of developing into an all-around back. “I just didn’t want to be a third-down back. I just wanted to show that I am an every-down back and I can be really good at it for years to come.”

Though Rice rushed for a school-record 4,926 yards at Rutgers, his lack of height seemed to raise some concerns.

“You make a few plays and they don’t talk about it anymore,” Rice said. “I was told I couldn’t catch the ball coming out of college [37 career receptions]. I was too small and not fast enough. You make a few big plays and they say you are a football player.”

One of the reasons behind Rice’s success is his deceptive strength and power. He also shows plenty of toughness and an ability to deliver as many blows as he takes.

“He has a low center of gravity,” Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said. “And because he is small, you have to locate him. He is elusive, has a lot of determination to make a play and extend a play. That gives defenses problems.”

Moreover, the work Rice put in during the offseason has paid big dividends. He only got stronger as the 2009 regular season wound down, rushing for his two highest totals in December.

Rice’s biggest game came in a 48-3 win over the Lions in Week 14. He rushed for 166 yards on 13 carries, including two runs of more than 50 yards.

Photo Rice had 100-plus yards from scrimmage in 12 of the Ravens’ games this season.
(James Lang/US Presswire)

He compiled 204 yards from scrimmage by halftime, which ranked as the NFL’s fourth highest one-half total by a running back in 18 years.

His performance against Pittsburgh in Week 16 was just as impressive in a 23-20 loss. Rice gained 141 yards rushing to become the first running back in 33 games to surpass the 100-yard mark on the Steelers.

“He’s a big time player – not only for them – but in the scope of things in the league,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “I think he has gotten to that status.”

Rice’s most memorable play of the season occurred in Week 12 versus the Steelers. He lined up in the slot as a receiver on 4th-and-5 in the final minutes and turned a short reception into a dazzling 44-yard gain. Rice beat Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior(notes) on the play, which set up the game-tying field goal in a 20-17 win.

“I feel if I can make a play on Ray Lewis in practice, I can make a play on any linebacker,” Rice said. “It gives me an edge. It’s confidence.”

Tom Worgo is a freelancer based in the Baltimore area

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Updated Tuesday, Jan 5, 2010