Rice separates himself from the pack
OWINGS MILLS — Ray Rice hit full stride, finding that extra gear akin to a track and field sprinter kicking across the finish line. The speedy Pro Bowl running back dashed away from defenders who gave chase in vain to finish off a pair of long-distance touchdown runs. His 70-yard and 50-yard scores as he rushed for 191 yards on 24 carries boosted the Ravens to a 24-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, earning an AFC North division crown, a first-round bye and the second seed in the AFC playoffs.
Although Rice isn't frequently mentioned in conversations around the league about the fastest players, he has served notice this year with his ability to separate from the pack and emerged as a home run-hitting runner.
Rushing for a career-high 1,364 yards to finish second in the NFL in rushing behind Jacksonville Jaguars star Maurice Jones-Drew, Rice also displayed a nose for the end zone with 15 touchdowns to break a franchise single-season record. And Rice finished atop the league charts for runs of 40 yards or higher with five. It didn't go unnoticed as he was named a starter for the AFC Pro Bowl squad. He was also named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week for the second time this season Tuesday.
"His vision and his courses and his aiming points and all those things continue to get better all the time," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He is still young, he is still growing. His best football is still in front of him, but that's a very good observation about the finishing speed. To me, I credit it to his training." Running low to the ground at a compact 5-foot-8, 212 pounds, Rice has a powerful build that he maintains through a rigorous strength and conditioning regimen that he practices throughout the year.
Rice's upper body is bigger than most running backs with softball-sized biceps, and his legs are packed with power. Although diminutive in terms of stature, Rice isn't the stereotypical small back who avoids contact. He has thrived running between the tackles.
"This guy, Ray Rice, works really hard, not just in the offseason, but during the season," Harbaugh said. "You see him in the weight room, what he does as far as training his legs and his whole body, what he does with his conditioning. He gets stronger as the year goes on, and that's really shown up in the last few weeks. It's a credit to Ray."
Speed, stamina and knowing how to make people miss combines to make a huge difference. "He did a good job when he got into the open field to not allow the defense to catch up to him," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who had an excellent vantage point to watch the long runs after handing the football off to Rice. "Obviously, getting into the end zone on both of those was huge."
Rice finished first in the NFL by generating 2,068 total yards from scrimmage, including 76 receptions for 704 yards and three touchdowns. He edged Jones-Drew, who finished with 1,980 total yards. Running behind his pads and instinctively anticipating where the holes would open, Rice followed blocks from offensive guard Marshal Yanda and fullback Vonta Leach on his touchdowns in Cincinnati.
"First and foremost, I'm going to give credit to my offensive line and Vonta Leach," Rice said. "You know it takes 11 for a run play to go. The first one, I just had to stay on my track. Vonta got on a guy, and then I was off to the races." In the final weeks of his original four-year rookie contract that paid him $550,000 this season after a $1.1 million signing bonus received in 2008, Rice hasn't complained about his situation.
The Ravens will either make Rice their franchise player or sign him to a lucrative contract extension. Either way, he won't be going anywhere. And Rice will have some spending to do to reward Leach and his offensive line for clearing a path for him all season.
"Running backs, we get the glory," said Rice, who's averaging 4.7 yards per carry. "Man, that bill is going to be expensive for what I have to get my offensive line. I have to get those guys something nice. They've set it up nice for me this year."
During the Ravens' four losses, Rice wasn't involved nearly as much as usual as he averaged only nine carries and 38.75 yards. Over the past two games, Rice has averaged 23.5 carries and 139 yards.
"I think it's important anytime Ray touches the ball," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "That's never changed. When we play that type of game, the result is 12 wins and a first-round bye. "I take my hat off to that guy. I've watched that boy since college, and to see him grow now in his fourth year is a special, special thing." Now, the Ravens have climbed to 10th in the NFL in rushing offense with 1,996 rushing yards and 15 touchdown runs as a team on 459 carries. "I've always been a big Ray Rice and offensive line fan," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I strongly believe in our running game, and I strongly believe in our offensive line being in the trenches with us. When they're good, we're great.
"When our offensive line dominates and Ray is running behind them, a lot of good things happen as you can all clearly see throughout the course of our season. When our offensive line is playing great and Ray's running the ball, we're winning games. That's all that matters."
Among the playoff field in the AFC, few teams have emphasized running the football and stopping the run as much as the Ravens with the exception of the Houston Texans having the second-ranked running game and the fourth-ranked run defense and the Pittsburgh Steelers ranking 14th in rushing and eighth in run defense.
Not passing the football nearly as much as they did earlier this season without much consistent success, the Ravens have gotten back to their roots with Rice running behind a smash-mouth offensive line and arguably the top lead blocker in the game in Leach.
"That, to me, is proven," Harbaugh said. "It's tried and true. It's Raven football. That won't change. It's consistent with the personality of this city. This city, the history and the tradition of what I would call ‘Raven football,' goes back in this city many, many years, all the way back. So, we're not going to change that. That's going to be our style."
Ravens cut Graham, promote Boren
OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens cut kicker Shayne Graham and promoted rookie center-guard Justin Boren from the practice squad. They replaced Boren on the practice squad with speedy rookie wide receiver and kick returner Phillip Livas, a former Louisiana Tech standout. Boren is a former University of Michigan lineman who went undrafted in April and was signed by the Ravens in July.
The Ravens got kicker Billy Cundiff back from a left calf injury Sunday and he kicked a 42-yard field goal in a 24-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Graham had kicked field goals of 48 yards and 43 yards against the Cleveland Browns with Cundiff sidelined, but became expendable once Cundiff returned.
"As long as Billy's healthy, he'll be our kicker," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "I think we were really fortunate that Shayne was available. I think if anything happens in the future and if he's still available, I wouldn't be surprised that if someone had an issue, they would pick Shayne up right away."
Graham has connected on 18 of 19 field goals as an injury replacement kicker who hasn't earned a permanent job over the past two seasons. "He did a great job," Harbaugh said. "Why he's not holding on to a job right now, I'm not sure, but we were very fortunate for him to be able to come in and fill that gap for us."
Suggs asks Skip Bayless why he doesn't like Flacco
OWINGS MILLS -- Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs continued his running debate with ESPN personality Skip Bayless on Tuesday.
Appearing on ESPN's First Take program, Suggs had a humorous response to this question from Bayless: "In your heart of hearts would you rather have Tim Tebow or Joe Flacco?" Suggs' reply: "Are you kidding me? Why don't you like my quarterback, Skip? Is it his mustache? Is it his eyebrows? Is it because Tim Tebow is prettier? I understand you have your man crush but you can't force that on the rest of us." As for Flacco, who has drawn criticism locally and nationally despite the Ravens' 12-4 record and passing for 3,610 yards and 20 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, Suggs defended his quarterback.
"We have a quarterback that fits our system," Suggs said. "I love the kid. He plays football. He's my quarterback, I love him. I stand by him, I love him on the sideline with the ice in his veins and I just feel awesome about him." Suggs referred to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as "God's nephew," adding that the Ravens prefer to use their football skills instead of sideline prayers. As usual with Suggs, his remarks were tongue in cheek.
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