Gameday Notes: Rice Becomes Star

Packer Report publisher Bill Huber empties his tape recorder and notebook in time for tonight's game. How good is Ravens running back Ray Rice? What are the worries for the Packers on offense and defense? That and much more in this must-read pregame feature.

Baltimore's Ray Rice had quietly become one of the NFL's best all-around running backs.

Until last week, when that silence was shattered with a huge play on national television.

With the Ravens trailing by three points and their season hanging in the balance with less than 2 minutes, Rice converted a fourth-and-5 with a 44-yard reception. He left Steelers linebacker James Farrior in his dust just after the snap and used a nasty spin move to break free for an extra 20 yards. The big play set up the tying field goal, and the Ravens won 20-17 in overtime.

Rice, a second-round pick in 2008, ranks 12th in the NFL with 821 rushing yards but would be ranked much higher if the Ravens didn't employ Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain in the backfield, as well. Impressively, he averages 4.9 yards per carry — only five backs have a higher average among the NFL's top 25 rushers — and he has a team-high 61 receptions. His 1,403 yards from scrimmage trails only Tennessee's Chris Johnson.

"Rice is a very impressive guy," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "You don't have to look at very much tape to see that he's not only impressive running the ball because he's a tough guy to tackle when he bounces off and breaks a lot of tackles. He did it last (week) against the Steelers. They get the fourth-and-5 situation and who do they go to? They go to him and he gets 40 yards."

While the Packers have faced a couple of good all-around backs — Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, for instance — they haven't faced anyone who's as dangerous on the ground as through the air as the 5-foot-8, 195-pound Rice.

"Whenever there's some type of problem on the field, (quarterback Joe) Flacco looks for him just right out of the gates," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "He's definitely their go-to guy. You've seen a lot of these little scatback-type running backs with Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore, (Michael) Turner. With them, they're outstanding athletes. For him, he's the real deal as far as running the ball. He makes some amazing cuts and breaks tackles, too. He packs a lot of power."

In a draft in which Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall and Johnson were first-round picks and Chicago took Matt Forte in the second, Rice has just as good as any of them. He leads the Ravens with 11 plays of at least 20 yards, including six plays of at least 30 yards. Ravens coach John Harbaugh uses the words "electric" and "explosive" when talking about Rice.

"To be quite honest, I made these plays before, I just probably haven't made them in a Ravens game," he told reporters in Baltimore this week. "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 has a big fan in teammate Ray Lewis. Lewis enjoyed watching Rice compete at Rutgers and was thrilled when the Ravens drafted him. Since then, Lewis has taken Rice under his wing, and Rice has been all-too-happy to pick the 14-year pro's brain for advice.

"I watched pretty much his whole career and I said, ‘Wow, if I ever met that kid, I would tell him I love his passion for the game,'" Lewis said. "I love the way he plays the game. You find humble people, he's probably one of the most humblest man you'd ever meet in your life. He's always energetic about life, energetic about the game and always trying to find a way to get better. It started as a business partnership and it turned into the greatest friendship, so we do everything together, bottom line."

Offense's focus


Ray Lewis sacks Brady Quinn.
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Through the last five games, few defenses have played better than the Ravens. Since losing 33-31 to Minnesota before the bye, Baltimore has allowed just 55 points — an average of 11 per game. That includes only 17 against Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, which have three of the NFL's better attacks.

"When you go into the inside things, whether it's scoring, change of possession, things like that, then we're at the top echelon of all of that," Lewis said. "So, when go into things that are deep into what we think that's why nobody has seen the end zone in the second half one time in the last five games."

The Ravens boast a couple of all-timers on defense with safety Ed Reed and the ageless Lewis. Plus, nose tackle Halota Ngata is one of the elite at his position.

"You'd like to know where those guys are at because they really make the defense go," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "But Ed hasn't been featured in a lot of blitzing packages, which I'm sure that could change. But obviously if you're throwing the ball downfield, you've got to know where Ed Reed is; in the run game, you have to know where 52 (Lewis) is, as well."

No ordinary 6-5 team

With a 6-5 record, the Ravens would appear to be one step above mediocre.

But with the NFL's eighth-ranked defense (fourth in points allowed), 13th-ranked offense (10th in points scored), above-average special teams and several elite players, the Ravens aren't too far away from the level of play that got them to the AFC championship game last year.

"I don't know," Harbaugh said when asked if he felt his team was hitting its stride after beating Pittsburgh last week. "We've been playing pretty competitively throughout. We just didn't find a way to win games. That Pittsburgh game wasn't too different than the Indianapolis game (17-15 loss) or the Minnesota game (33-31 loss) or the New England game (27-21 loss) or the first Cincinnati game (17-14 loss). The difference was we found a way to win it. I think we're getting better in a lot of ways, just as you hope to do throughout the season. But winning those tight games is the key against good teams."

Rodgers ready and able


Aaron Rodgers
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Rodgers has been sacked just three times in the last two games, an infinite improvement from the first nine games, when he was sacked 41 times.

Not only is the line playing better but the offense has incorporated more quick-hitting throws. The result has been a season-high 64 points the last two weeks.

"I think they've been doing a good job," Rodgers said of his line. "I like the direction we've gone with the play-calling the last couple weeks. I feel like it's really allowed those guys to feel confident in the protection schemes and personally, we've had a lot of plays were I get the ball out of my hand quickly. When I'm getting out quick, those guys feel good about the protection called. I think those guys can win a high percentage of their one-on-one battles when they feel confident in the protection schemes."

Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said Rodgers deserves at least a "little" credit for playing faster.

"I know there was a knock on Aaron early in the season, ‘Oh, he's holding the ball too long, he's holding the ball too long,'" Philbin said. "Then there was obviously the knock on the line, ‘They can't block anybody, they're giving up sacks left and right.' We all know it's never that simple or that easy. Maybe we've just caught some plays where we haven't been holding the ball as long, so that's credit to a couple things. I think maybe our receivers are doing a better job getting open.

"Sometimes you get a little bit luckier than other times in terms of what coverage you get against the play you've got called. Guys are blocking better, I think it's a combination of a lot of things, really. But I think the quarterback's been playing well. I think he's had very good command of what we're doing, I think he's playing decisively. Obviously if a guy's pretty open, it helps the quarterback play more decisively. And if he feels more confident about where he can set up and launch the ball, that helps it all obviously as well."

Lewis dismissed the Packers' sack total as what happened early in the season. He said Rodgers' athletic ability poses a big challenge for a Ravens defense that's recorded only 21 sacks and likely will be without Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs.

"The things that you do see from him is he makes a lot of plays with his legs, when he does get out of the pocket, he does make a lot of plays with his legs," Lewis said. "That's the thing, the plays that they actually got, it was with his legs. That's going to be our challenge to make sure he doesn't get out the pocket."

Red zone

If you're looking for one area in which the Packers have to perform better tonight, it's in the red zone.

Green Bay ranks 15th in red zone offense with touchdowns on 52.6 percent of possessions inside the 20-yard line, while Baltimore's defense ranks eighth in red zone defense at a stellar 44.8 percent. Some of the Packers' problems can be attributed to their pass protection. If opponents can rush only four, then seven defenders can drop back into a smaller area to take away the receivers.

"The windows are a lot tighter in the red zone and decisions have to happen quicker," Rodgers said. "I think a lot of times, teams have been playing us in the red zone, dropping seven or eight guys out, which makes the windows even smaller. So, we're going to have to be patient and dump it off and run for the first down. Teams have been doing a pretty good job against us. Those windows have been pretty small. Sometimes, you have to take your medicine and take the checkdown and live to fight another day instead of forcing the ball into tight coverage and possibly turning the ball over."

On the other side of the coin, the Packers' red zone defense ranks a woeful 29th (63.3 percent) while Baltimore's offense ranks a pedestrian 17th (51.4 percent).

Four-point stance

— The Ravens' first-round pick, tackle Michael Oher, starts at right tackle and gets a lot of action when he moves to the left side of the formation alongside left tackle Jared Gaither in an unbalanced line.

"That's a big part of their scheme," Capers said. "They run a lot of unbalanced. It just gives you another thing to adjust to and think about. If they put two tackles over there side-to-side, you know that gives them a good power base to run the ball. You have to be able to adjust all your defenses to it."

— Flacco led the Ravens to the AFC title game as a rookie last year. In his second year as the starter, he's being asked to do more — just like Rodgers. After throwing 428 passes last year, he's on pace for 538 attempts this season. He has 13 touchdowns, eight interceptions and 2,744 yards compared to full-season numbers of 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and 2,971 yards as a rookie.

"This guy can make all the throws," Capers said. "He's big, he's strong. He sets his feet and he can really zip the ball. I think they've probably opened their offense up a little bit more than what they did a year ago, so they probably put a little more on his plate."

— A big snowstorm is coming, but about 24 hours too late for this game. The forecast is calling for 25 degrees and a flurry or two at kickoff. Nonetheless, weather was a hot topic this week.

"You've got to live in it and walk from the stadium to your car and your car to the restaurant, or be out there shoveling your driveway with no gloves on, that's what I did last year at least," Rodgers said. "It's not a lot of fun, but you just get better dealing with it. I think when I go back to California and it's 45 degrees and I'm wearing shorts, and everybody's asking me what's wrong with me, I say, ‘Ah, it's kind of warm out here. It's not too bad.' You just get better at dealing with the winter. I don't think you ever really get used to it. At least I haven't gotten used to it yet. But I'm better at dealing with it."

— Both teams are superb with turnovers. Green Bay has a league-low 10 giveaways and a league-best plus-17 margin. The Ravens are plus-4 and rank third with only 13 giveaways.

"Their defense is really getting after people causing turnovers," Lewis said. "We don't give up turnovers and we've got to create turnovers. It's going to be a battle come Monday night, who turns the ball over less and who can keep control of the ball."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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