Rice takes opportunity, runs with it

August 17, 2008|By DAVID STEELE

In his second NFL start, Ray Rice delivered a shot of adrenaline to the Ravens' offense.

And, more than likely, a shot of novocaine to Willis McGahee's knee.

Watching one's backup slice through and bounce around the defense, even just a handful of times, can bring a sense of renewed health and fitness to any player post-surgery. While the good news is McGahee is back in town after getting his left knee scoped in Florida a little more than a week ago, the bad news is he got to see up close what Rice was doing in his place, instead of from afar.

Not that McGahee's job, technically, is in jeopardy. John Harbaugh didn't hesitate to make that clear after the Ravens' 23-15 preseason loss to the Minnesota Vikings last night at M&T Bank Stadium. "Who's going to be the starter? It's Willis," he said. Of Rice, though, he added, "But he plays like a starter, if that's what you're asking."

Legitimate question, especially because Harbaugh included the qualifier, "if McGahee is healthy." Rice definitely is healthy. As opposed to his debut the previous week at New England, the numbers backed him up. In that exhibition opener, he totaled 29 yards on 10 touches. Yet he unquestionably showed some explosion. You had to trust your eyes rather than your statistics.

Last night, you had permission to believe your eyes and the numbers. Last night, the numbers were 94 yards on 11 touches.

That includes 42 yards the first time he touched the ball on the home field of his NFL employer, on the Ravens' second offensive play. It was breathtaking to watch in every way, from Troy Smith changing the original second-and-3 call at the line, to Rice bursting through the hole on the right side (a colossal hole, and a proud moment for the makeshift line), to his subtle shift into open space and his demonstrating enough speed to lose everybody except safety Tyrell Johnson down the right sideline.

That was the longest play of his home debut, not the most impressive. That was on the 6-yard touchdown run five plays later, when his shift to the left wasn't subtle at all - he sprang from behind his blocker, found the open lane and powered into the end zone.

In all, he gained 55 of the Ravens' 73 yards on that drive, the first of Smith's first start of the preseason. If Rice made McGahee's life a little harder, he made Smith's easier. On that seven-play drive, Smith called exactly one pass play. His own 10-yard run to set up first-and-goal was a designed play, and you have to figure the Vikings' defense had an eye on Rice by then.

The next time the Ravens had the ball, early in the second quarter, Rice rattled off 19 more yards on the first two plays - 8 on a well-executed screen and 11 more on another nifty move left. The Ravens didn't get any points out of that, just a sense of relief that, in a worst-case scenario with McGahee's knee, they could manage.

They were getting exactly what they thought they would get out of Rice when they drafted him after his brilliant career at Rutgers: an ability to make things happen with the ball on runs and passes. The bonus appears to be his ability to pick things up fast.

"I was thrown right into the fire, with guys getting hurt," Rice said. "One day, I'm working with the twos and threes, and the next day, all of a sudden I'm working with the ones. If I hadn't learned fast, you might not have seen [last night] what you saw."

Reports of McGahee's return by opening day sound a tad optimistic. Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Rice is going to get his chances, beginning with that opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 7. Even if that optimism is borne out, Rice earned his touches last night, if he hadn't already earned them throughout camp.

Of course, the Ravens proved again that they're going to need all the offensive weapons they can wring a big play out of at all times. Smith presided over one turnover in his half, a deflection off the hands of wide receiver Mark Clayton. Kyle Boller threw a pick in the second half. Joe Flacco threw one on the final drive that was nullified by a penalty. Once again, offensive Most Valuable Player candidates included a defensive player - Derrick Martin, for his interception return.

Rice, however, looks like a weapon. The Ravens should feel very confident that if they have to, they can count on him.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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