Ray Rice lives for third down. First and second down are good, mind you, but third down is what Rice does best.
The veteran Ravens running back showed again Sunday why he is one of the NFL's most dynamic and clutch players. He broke the back of Pittsburgh's vaunted defense by converting five third-down plays in the first half, and his two early touchdowns paved the way for a 35-7 rout of the Steelers.
"I've always embraced the third-down role," Rice said afterward. "So if I need a blow, I'm going to take it on first or second down because third down is the most important down in the NFL. Me, Cam [Cameron], Joe [Flacco] know that I want to be ready for third down. … If I had to distinguish my role, I would say I'm an every-down back, but I want to play third down."
Nobody played it better Sunday. Cameron, the Ravens' offensive coordinator, kept calling Rice's number, and Flacco, the veteran quarterback, knew where to go when he needed help.
The result was the eighth 100-yard rushing game of Rice's career (107 on 19 carries). The Steelers have allowed just two 100-yard rushers in their last 51 games — and Rice had both of them (he gouged Pittsburgh for 141 yards on Dec. 27, 2009).
Rice set the tone for the day when he scampered 36 yards on a first play from scrimmage, running an outside zone play behind left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Before the half was over, Rice ran inside guard Marshal Yanda for a 1-yard touchdown and pulled down an 11-yard scoring pass from Flacco for a 21-7 lead. Both touchdowns came on third down. Neither came on finesse plays.
"That was a physical, [well]-executed beat-down," Rice said. "If feels good to go out there and come up with a game plan and execute. That's all it's about. It's not about trick plays. … Outside zone left, outside zone right, mix it up the middle, play action; that's a standard game plan. Green Bay, that's what they ran the other night. Everybody has their own way of doing it. We figured that simple would be better for us in this game."
By any name, it was physical domination. The Ravens ravaged the Steelers for 170 rush yards — the sixth-most Pittsburgh has permitted over the past six years — averaging 5.5 per carry. Even with an offensive line in transition, the Steelers were no match for the more physical Ravens.
McKinnie took his first live snaps since last January, when he played for the Minnesota Vikings. Center Matt Birk took his first snaps of the season. And Yanda lined up at guard for only the second time since training camp. As a group, they completely shut down Pittsburgh's fierce blitzers, James Harrison, who left with a knee injury, and LaMarr Woodley.
"When I got here, what I was told [was] that they were like a bully," McKinnie said of the Steelers. "They tried to bully and do little cheap stuff. You've got to go out there sometimes and fight the bully, show the bully just because he's trying to bully everybody else, we're not going to let you push us around. That's the attitude everybody had."
Rice said it was even better than beating up the bully. This win allowed the Ravens to move beyond last January's playoff loss in Pittsburgh, when they wilted in the second half and blew a 21-7 lead.
"Now it's over, now the playoff tape is through," Rice said. "They beat us in the playoffs, all right. [But] they're not the Super Bowl champs. The reigning champs are the Green Bay Packers. So now it's time we got that burden off our shoulders. Boom. We're one up on them right now and that's how we've got to approach this. … It's always a slugfest with them. Lord knows what's going to happen later in the year, but right now we're 1-0 and looking forward to Tennessee next week."