Playmaker

Ravens Took A Chance On Rice, And It Paid Off Big

December 04, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray , ken.murray@baltsun.com

On the biggest play of the Ravens' season so far, Ray Rice motioned out of the backfield, settled into the slot opposite James Farrior and dazzled the Pittsburgh Steelers with a 44-yard catch-and-run Sunday.

Even though it led only to a tying field goal, the electrifying burst preserved the Ravens' playoff hopes for at least another week and validated Rice's new-found status as one of the NFL's brightest young playmakers.

With the game on the line and the season hanging in the balance, the Ravens put it all on a fourth-and-5 call from their own 46-yard line. Perhaps not surprisingly, the man they looked to was the precocious 5-foot-8 Rice.

"We motioned him out of [the backfield] and I had him one-on-one with a linebacker," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "I'm not going to give that opportunity up."

He didn't waste a second. When tight end Todd Heap drew a second linebacker out of the way, it opened the field for Rice, who caught Flacco's pass in stride, delivered a hellacious spin move in the middle and sped down the sideline to the Pittsburgh 10 before being caught.

The Ravens needed overtime to beat the Steelers, but they had finally turned the tide in the fourth quarter of a close game. It wasn't the first time Rice has come up big when the Ravens needed it most this season.

"Those plays he makes, especially that fourth-down catch and the spin, you don't expect a young guy like that to make," wide-out Kelley Washington said. "He's definitely worthy of that second-round pick, and he's one of those special players. I think it's good that he's got his head on his shoulders to where he knows he can take over a game at any time."

Rice, 22, is the youngest player - and shortest - on the Ravens' roster. If his first season with the Ravens merely hinted at his big-play potential, his second has thrust him into the upper tier of playmakers. He's a sponge off the field, picking up life lessons from linebacker Ray Lewis, tips on keeping his body primed from Washington, and inspiration for overcoming adversity from running back Willis McGahee.

But when it comes to making plays, Rice is in a league of his own.

"I think you've got to be comfortable making those plays," he said. "To be quite honest, I made these plays before, I just probably haven't made them in a Ravens game. I've made these plays in practice, I've made them in training camp, I made them in the offseason. But when the lights are on, when your number's called on fourth-and-5, it's a different feeling. It's like, if a coach is comfortable with it and if it works in practice, he's going to call it in a game."

Rice left Rutgers for the 2008 draft as a junior with a profile as a workhorse running back who lacked speed. Additionally, there were questions about his hands because Rutgers did not use him much in the passing game. But it took Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of player personnel, about five plays on tape to realize Rice fit what the Ravens want at the position.

"He had a competitiveness about him that I felt would translate very well to our league," DeCosta said. "He refused to go down, would disappear and then shoot out of the pile. You could see his passion on tape. I took the tape to [general manager Ozzie Newsome] and he saw the same exact thing."

Because of his size and speed, the Ravens believed Rice would be overlooked. They were right, even after Rice ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds at the combine. In a draft filled with marquee runners - Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson and Matt Forte all were taken before him - Rice slipped deep into the second round.

The Ravens had a chance to take him with the 38th pick, but, gambling, traded down in the round to No. 55 to acquire an additional third-round choice. The gamble paid off: Rice was still there at 55 and they added safety Tom Zbikowski with the extra pick.

DeCosta is not surprised at the big plays Rice has made during his time here.

"He did that in college," DeCosta said. "He's so strong, so competitive and has such great balance. It's not all about blazing speed. In this league, you've got to make [defenders] miss, and sometimes you've got to lower the pads and run through somebody. We felt Ray could do both."

Rice already plays like a giant. He ranks second in the league to the Tennessee Titans' Johnson in yards from scrimmage with 1,403. He averages 6.2 yards per touch, including 4.9 per rush. His 61 catches and 582 yards are tops among all running backs. He leads the Ravens with 11 plays of 20 yards or more, including six plays of more than 30 yards.

And this is the bar of expectation Rice holds for himself: He wants to be as adept at breaking a big play in the passing game as he is in the running game.

"I want to be known as a playmaker," Rice said. "I don't want to be a guy where they say, 'He's just running the ball, he's just catching the ball.' They're going to say, 'When he's out there, he's a dual threat.' "

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