Ray Rice: 'I'm a playmaker'
OWINGS MILLS – Ray Rice lined up in the slot as a wide receiver, set his feet and proceeded to render New York Jets safety Eric Smith powerless to stop him as yet another lumbering victim.
The Baltimore Ravens' diminutive, versatile running back darted into his slant pattern, naturally hauling in the quick pass from quarterback Joe Flacco.
And then Rice turned on the afterburners as he accelerated into the secondary past a flailing Smith, using his superior quickness and moves for a 52-yard reception during the Ravens' 34-17 trouncing of the Jets on Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
It was a snapshot of how Rice can transform an ordinary play into an extraordinary feat by bolting away from defenders. Rice has become the focal point of the Ravens' offense, drawing extra attention each week from sleep-deprived defensive coordinators' schemes.
"I feel like I'm a playmaker," Rice said. "I know if I get out in space I can make a few guys miss. I do feel like I have a little target on my back, but it could be the opposite. You could be like a loner out there. It just shows the respect. The target maybe isn't such a bad thing. It helps out my younger guys, lets them get a chance to shine."
As an all-purpose threat, Rice has few rivals in the NFL.
Through four games, Rice has rushed for 297 yards and two touchdowns and caught 16 passes for 242 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
He's on pace to finish the season with 1,188 rushing yards and 64 receptions for 968 receiving yards.
Should Rice increase his production as a receiver a bit, he could become the third running back in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards on the ground and 1,000 yards through the air. That would put him in the rarified company of former NFL running backs Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig.
During the 1999 season with the St. Louis Rams, Faulk rushed for 1,381 yards and caught 87 passes for 1,048 yards.
Back in 1985 with the San Francisco 49ers, Craig rushed for 1,050 yards and caught 92 passes for 1,016 yards.
Now, Rice is threatening their territory and paralyzing linebackers like brash Jets defender Bart Scott. Rice made Scott fall down with his fast-twitch moves Sunday.
"He's an elite back," Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "He's as good as there is in the league. Obviously, his quickness, his lateral movement is what scares defenses the most. He gets any amount of green grass and I mean a yard, and he can make you miss. He brings it all to the package.
"He's great out of the backfield. He's great in pass protection. You saw how physical he was picking up a couple of those blitzes. You really can't say enough about Ray Rice. The more he touches the football, the better we are as a football team."
Rice is averaging 74.25 rushing yards and 60.5 receiving yards per contest.
The former Rutgers star rushed for a career-high 1,339 yards two seasons ago when he caught a career-high 78 passes for 702 yards.
And he finished last season with 1,220 rushing yards and 63 catches for 556 yards. This year, he's averaging 15.1 yards per reception.
One of the few knocks on Rice out of college besides his lack of size at 5-foot-8, 212 pounds was how the All-American runner wasn't an accomplished receiver. He just wasn't used much in that capacity at Rutgers while rushing for a school-record 4,926 yards and 49 touchdowns.
As he displayed against the Jets, Rice can definitely catch the football.
And the added dimension of Rice as a receiver is picking up the slack for an offense that has been missing wide receiver Lee Evans due to a sprained ankle, is breaking in rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith and cut veteran tight end Todd Heap and wide receiver Derrick Mason before training camp.
"I marveled at that catch he made across the middle," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "When we ran that crossing-route, he had a defender just draped all over him and Joe put it in the only place he could put it and Ray reached out and grabbed it and then managed to pull away and then make three guys miss and get up the sideline.
"He's a legitimate, premier playmaker in the National Football League. He really has been since his rookie year. So, that's a guy that is a staple for us. He's an anchor for us."
Heading into this weekend, just two running backs have more receiving yards than Rice: the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte (26 catches, 310 yards) and the San Diego Chargers' Ryan Mathews (19 catches, 254 yards).
Rice piled up 130 yards of total offense against the Jets on 66 rushing yards and 64 receiving yards, the 26th time of his career he has produced at least 100 total yards from scrimmage. He leads the NFL with 24 of those games since becoming a full-time starter and being named to the Pro Bowl in 2009, ranking ahead of Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson in that category.
Rice has 3,310 career rushing yards and 1,773 receiving yards for 5,083 yards from scrimmage, becoming just the fourth Ravens player to surpass 5,000 yards as he joined Jamal Lewis, Mason and Heap.
Rice dismantled the NFL's top-ranked defense from last season to launch the season, rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries and also catching four passes for 42 yards and a score in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Against the St. Louis Rams, Rice rushed for 81 yards on nine carries and caught five passes for 83 yards.
From his vantage point in the Ravens' backfield, Flacco has had an excellent view of Rice's prowess and progress.
"Ray is a great one-on-one matchup for us," Flacco said. "Obviously, he's a good running back and he makes people miss, but he really excels when he gets the ball in space. The best way to do that is when he has one-on-one matchups whether it's in the screen game or when we get him room in the run game. He's been huge for us."
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