With Ricard back, full steam ahead

On the Ravens

September 28, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

Ravens fullback Alan Ricard has now become part of the solution instead of the problem. After being inactive for the first two games of the 2005 season, Ricard is expected to be in the starting lineup Sunday against the New York Jets.

If he's not starting, he will at least play, and he might be a stimulus for a running game that is averaging a mere 45.5 yards, ranked last in the NFL. He's not the missing ingredient that will help transform the Ravens into the league's top running team, but anything helps.

These are desperate times.

What happened to Ricard in the first two games?

It's a muddled picture. The Ravens, who never fabricate stories (wink, wink), say Ricard was still feeling the effects of a calf injury he suffered in training camp that forced him to miss the final two preseason games.

Ricard's response: "What injury?"

The truth is that Ricard had been bothered by the injuries, but the Ravens wanted a more balanced offense that could spread the field, and they thought they had more options with fullback Ovie Mughelli and tight end Dan Wilcox than with Ricard.

Big mistake.

At one point, the Ravens were close to cutting Ricard, a fifth-year player out of Northeast Louisiana. Now they want him to rev it up again, stick his head in somebody's chest as the lead blocker and top bouncer for star running back Jamal Lewis.

Lewis missed Ricard. Without him, he was out of place, like Abbott without Costello, or Batman without Robin. This is no stretch, either. They're best of friends. The Ravens put Lewis in a different position in the first two games operating mostly out of a one-back set, or with a new fullback or H-back.

They never should have tinkered with success. Some running backs like the one-back set because they can see more without a fullback, but the I-formation is all Lewis had known since Day One of training camp in his rookie year.

During the past three seasons, including Lewis' career-high mark of 2,066 yards rushing in 2003, Ricard has been Lewis' guide dog, cracking him through the seams of seven and eight players crowded around the line of scrimmage.

They had formed a bond, a trust, and Lewis had learned to read and run off Ricard's blocks. There was no such familiarity with Mughelli or Wilcox. Lewis and Ricard should have been inseparable, just like former Dallas Cowboys stars Darryl Johnston and Emmitt Smith, or Eddie George and Lorenzo Neal when they were both with the Tennessee Titans.

What was unusual about the Ravens' decision is that most West Coast offenses usually have a big, dominating fullback (see Tom Rathman when he was with the San Francisco 49ers, and Howard Griffith when he was in Denver).

The Ravens had one in Ricard, a Pro Bowl alternate only a couple of seasons ago, but failed to use him. The move to put Ricard on the bench bothered Lewis, who was already irritated by the way the team handled his contract negotiations during training camp.

Did it have a negative effect on Lewis?

It would have to, because of their relationship. They aren't just teammates, but close friends. Lewis calls him Ri-Ri, and he has the near-perfect fullback body and spirit.

He's 5 feet 11 and weighs 237 pounds. He loves collisions crashing head on into bigger linebackers and defensive linemen. Ricard can count concussions, but only with a calculator.

This big man doesn't have a big ego. You can't have an ego when you don't touch the ball on 50 or 60 plays a game. Ricard, like most fullbacks in the league these days, is a glorified guard with speed.

Actually, he might be better than any of the Ravens guards or any of the other offensive linemen who have been awful as a unit in the first two games.

With Ricard in the lineup, the Ravens can play power football. They can use two tight ends and try to muscle up on teams in short yardage situations. They can also send Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap out on pass routes instead of keeping him in to pass block or chip on defensive ends like the Ravens did nearly a week and a half ago against the Titans. It's a much better physical matchup, now.

But the main job for Ricard is to make room for Lewis. He now has a better chance of getting to the line of scrimmage, and possibly accelerating through the hole because of a personal escort.

A running game solves a lot of problems for the Ravens. Unless the Ravens can run, they can't pass. If they can't pass a little, they have no chance of winning at all.

Those chances, however, have improved. Ricard is now back on the field.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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