The Ravens' three-headed monster at running back could get some of its bite back tomorrow with the full return of rookie Ray Rice.
Rice had missed four consecutive games because of a bruised left shin and played sparingly in the Ravens' 13-10 win over the Tennessee Titans last Saturday. He could get a greater workload in the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I'm ready to go full speed," Rice said. "I was ready to play against Jacksonville. I suited up for Miami. Tennessee, I was ready to go, and I played a couple plays in the third quarter. I feel brand new again."
Rice's return could revitalize a running attack that seems to have lost a little steam. Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain sprained his right ankle against the Titans, and backup running back Willis McGahee has been battling eye, rib and ankle injuries.
Ranked fourth in the NFL with 148.5 rushing yards a game at the end of the regular season, the Ravens have slowed to a 100.5-yard average in two playoff games. The Titans limited the Ravens to 50 yards on 30 carries last week.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron half-joked that coaches have forgotten about Rice, who last played a significant number of snaps against the Washington Redskins on Dec. 7.
"But we think he's an outstanding football player," Cameron said. "He's smart. He's tough. ... [He has] a little more quickness in some areas than some guys. We're going to need him in this game. There's no doubt about it. He's probably the healthiest guy we have."
Rice hasn't been the offense's featured tailback since gaining 154 yards on 21 carries against the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 2, but his value lies in a multitude of areas. As a third-down back, the 5-foot-8, 205-pound Rice can hide behind the massive offensive line and catch opposing defenses napping on draw plays. Blessed with soft hands, Rice has more catches and yards off receptions than McClain or McGahee.
Rice has drawn comparisons to the Philadelphia Eagles' Brian Westbrook, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew and the San Diego Chargers' Darren Sproles for his versatility and pass-catching skills.
Rice could be a weapon against a Steelers defense that finished the regular season ranked first in the NFL in fewest average yards allowed. If the offense ends up in third-and-long situations, Rice's hands give rookie quarterback Joe Flacco another an additional option next to Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap in the passing attack.
"We've missed him a lot," McClain said. "He can get into a little flash and run the quick hitters when we're in our three-wides [formations], and run the screens. I think we're missing that part."
Rice likened his left shin bruise to a high ankle sprain, adding that the injury made it difficult for him to plant his left foot and make the cuts necessary to avoid tacklers.
"The straight-ahead stuff was there," he said. "But if you can't cut as a running back, you can't play. That's your livelihood. But now, it's better. I can cut and make plants."
Though he said he was frustrated by the slow healing process, Rice said the layoff has been beneficial.
"My legs haven't felt this fresh since I came into camp," he said. "Been rehabbing, my legs feel great. Definitely feel like I got my step back."