Rice or McGahee?

OWINGS MILLS -- Ray Rice might have done more than scamper away from a bewildered Cleveland Browns defense while turning in the top rushing performance for the Baltimore Ravens since Jamal Lewis was wearing a purple jersey.

The rookie running back could have altered the complexion of the Ravens' backfield when he rushed for a season-high 154 yards on 21 carries during a 37-27 victory Sunday over the Browns as a replacement for injured starter Willis McGahee.

It's presently unclear who will start against the Houston Texans as McGahee is scheduled to return from a sprained ankle after a week off. What isn't debatable is the impactful momentum generated by Rice, the former Rutgers star Baltimore drafted in the second round.

"Who gets more playing time? Who doesn't get more playing time? I don't know if we know going into the game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said during his weekly Monday news conference. "We'll find out who is going to play more based on how we match up against this football team. Certainly, Ray has expanded himself with the things he can do and the confidence he builds in the coaching staff."

Harbaugh emphasized that he doesn't view the running game as an either-or proposition. The Ravens look at it as a combination of an experienced, downhill runner in McGahee who was a Pro Bowl alternate last season and Rice, a shifty, versatile back who has evoked comparisons to the Philadelphia Eagles' Brian Westbrook.

When asked who would start, Harbaugh replied: "Yet to be determined. Who's the starter? Is it tactical? Probably not. We're just going to play all of those guys. We'll see who gives us the best chance to run that play well."

Meanwhile, bruising fullback Le'Ron McClain has scored five touchdowns.

The Ravens rank fifth in the league in rushing offense with a 148.5 yard average per contest, and rank second overall with 11 rushing touchdowns.

They are the only team in the NFL with three players with 300 or more rushing yards, led by McGahee (351 yards, three touchdowns) and followed by McClain (347 yards) and Rice (339 yards, 4.8 average per carry).

"We're a three-headed monster," Harbaugh said. "We're going to play all three guys. .. Pleasant problem to have, that's right. We'll take it."

Against the Browns, McGahee was in uniform. However, he remained sidelined due to ankle, knee and rib ailments.

"Willis will be ready," Harbaugh said. "The fact that he didn't play in this game probably helped him for next week, but he should be full-go next week. Those things start to add up and make you obviously less than 100 percent," "

There's a distinct difference in styles to Rice and McGahee.

McGahee is much more imposing at 6-foot, 232 pounds and has good straight-line speed and power, but lacks the ankle-breaking moves of Rice.

Rice, who is Rutgers' all-time leading rusher with 4,906 yards and 49 touchdowns, is just 5-8, 205 pounds. He runs with outstanding body lean and strength, shifting gears rapidly to elude tacklers.

"They aren't similar at all," center Jason Brown said. "Willis is very much a downhill guy, very fast and very speedy. Ray is very much a scatback and you see him doing a lot of chopping that for that cutback. In that fourth quarter, you see him slice the defense and go down the field."

Rice is also quite affordable, signed in July to a four-year, $2.805 million contract that included a $1.1 million signing bonus with manageable base salaries of $295,000 this season, $385,000 in 2009, $470,000 in 2010 and $555,000 in 2011.

The Ravens may have a difficult decision to make down the road between Rice and McGahee, who's in the second year of a seven-year, $40.12 million contract that included $15 million in guaranteed money.

It's not as if Rice is clamoring for McGahee's job, though. Both players get along well, and Rice consulted McGahee throughout the game Sunday.

"Willis and I always talk," Rice said. "I asked him some of the things he sees as a runner. Obviously, he's a special player. He has been in the league a while."

Rice dashed away from former University of Maryland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson on a 60-yard run in the fourth quarter, juking him badly.

With 7:30 remaining in the game, Rice sprinted down to the Browns' 3-yard line before defensive back Brandon McDonald shoved him out of bounds.

Rice was teased by teammates for not scoring, though.

"I heard about it," Rice said. "I've got to start finishing."

Nonetheless, it's the longest run since Lewis' 75-yarder in 2004 at Cincinnati. It's the most yards since Lewis' 167 against the Miami Dolphins in 2005.

"I can't say I'm surprised because I do a great job of studying, a great job of watching," Rice said. "So when it's my turn, I'm always ready."

Although undersized, the Ravens view Rice as a potential full-time starter.

"Well, he played like an NFL starting running back on Sunday," Harbaugh said. "So, in my mind, he's an NFL starting running back. Brian Westbrook is no bigger than Ray Rice, and there's a bunch of backs in this league that aren't tall. So, height doesn't mean anything really."


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