Baltimore Ravens: 7 Ways Baltimore Can Get Ray Rice More Involved in the Offense
On paper, the Baltimore Ravens offense looks like a collection of players who can score at will. With the talent at each "skill" position, Baltimore's record and position atop the AFC North should be no surprise.
However, a closer look shows a team that has dramatically underperformed, benefiting from some good breaks and bounces. Shaky wins over lesser opponents have hardly instilled confidence in the Raven faithful.
The Ravens defense has given up a ton of yardage, statistically subpar by the Baltimore standard. Yet at 9-3, the Ravens sit in the driver's seat for a division crown and a potential first-round playoff bye.
Controlling their own destiny hasn't been something the Ravens have capitalized on, though. With a chance to plunge a dagger into their most hated rival last week, Baltimore let a wounded Pittsburgh Steelers team steal a win in Baltimore.
One of the most puzzling things about Baltimore's struggles lately has been the offensive game planning, specifically the use of Ray Rice. Arguably the most dangerous and talented weapon in the Raven arsenal, Rice had only 12 carries last week against Pittsburgh.
Though he rushed for 78 yards (6.5 yards per carry average), the Baltimore game planners seemed to forget about him after the third quarter. After he broke a 13-13 tie with a fantastic 34-yard touchdown run, Rice would have one more carry in the game. A 10-yard run with 1:52 remaining in the third would end the Baltimore rushing attack and Ray Rice's day, ultimately sealing the Ravens' fate.
If Baltimore has any plans beyond the first round of the playoffs, Rice will have to be the key. The inconsistent play of quarterback Joe Flacco leaves a major question mark for the Baltimore aerial attack. Cam Cameron's game plan will need to center on the shifty tailback.
Based on the reluctance to use Rice appropriately, here are five suggestions for how Baltimore could and should use their All-Pro running back.
Establish the Run
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What a crazy idea! If Baltimore has one of the top running backs in the NFL, then why not use him to run the ball? The Baltimore offensive line has been pretty average this year, but Rice has been typically dynamic. His yards per carry average is on par with his career average, and is projected to top 1,100 yards rushing for the season.
What is curious is that Rice is projected to have his fewest carries since 2009. Joe Flacco, on the other hand, is on his way to a career high in pass attempts. Cam Cameron has been in or around the NFL long enough to recognize where the Ravens are falling short, and he needs to adjust the offensive game plan.
Does he realize it, though?
He seems to have fallen in love with Flacco's big arm, and wants to win with a pass-first offense. The trend in the NFL is to throw the ball, and the rule changes on defense favor the quarterback and receivers.
What trumps the passing trend in the league is winning football games. The Ravens have put themselves in an enviable position with their record, and seem to win almost in spite of their game planning.
When the playoffs start, Baltimore will need to run the football to control the line of scrimmage, and manage the clock as needed. The Ravens' final four opponents have a combined record of 30-19 and are each in or battling for playoff position. There is no better test for Baltimore to establish their running attack than in the next four weeks.
Stop Throwing Bombs
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Joe Flacco can throw the ball about 75 yards in the air. Torrey Smith is really fast. We get it, Cam Cameron. That is an exciting combination, and probably makes it very tempting to go for the home-run ball from time to time. However, the passing game is more effective when the ball is spread to other areas.
Anquan Boldin has evolved into one of the premier possession receivers in the league. Dennis Pitta is emerging as a viable tight end option. Two time All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach can catch and run when he isn't blowing up linebackers or linemen. Ray Rice would love to see the ball too, whether you hand it to him or toss it to him or pass it to him.
Stretching the defense is only effective when you save that play for the right moment. When it is called every fourth play, it kills momentum (possibly a drive) and wears out one of your top two receiving options. It's nice to have the deep ball in your back pocket, but for every home run it seems like there are five times as many whiffs.
Receiver out of the Backfield
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We have already established that Baltimore has been leaning a bit heavy on the passing attack this year. It has affected the number of carries from Ray Rice, and strangely has also affected the number of targets for Rice as a receiver too. He is projected for lowest reception and yardage total since his rookie season.
With a great set of hands to accompany the rest of his talents, it is stunning that Rice isn't used more often when the downfield passing game sputters. Screen passes and release dumps are ideal for a quick, darting back who can pick up yardage by the bushel in the open field.
How much of Rice's ineffectiveness falls on Flacco's inability to check down, and how much is by design? It seems absurd that Baltimore hasn't used their running backs more effectively as receiving options.
Again, with playoff-caliber competition starting Sunday through the rest of the season, Cameron needs to spread the field (and the defense) rather than trying to stretch it on every play. Move the chains Cam.
Involve Vonta Leach
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Just as dangerous to a balanced offensive attack is proper utilization of the fullback. Though the primary purpose of the larger, slower fullback is for blocking, Baltimore's Vonta Leach excels in other areas. Leach is a big body for sure, but has deceptively quick feet and great hands.
Leach has gone to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, and is a powerful force when he is in the backfield. He thrives on contact, punching holes that the nimble Ray Rice gratefully speeds through.
Leach needs to be on the field for the run game to succeed. In Baltimore's blowout loss to Houston, the Ravens fullback was only on the field for 14 of the team's 61 offensive plays. Hardly a coincidence that Baltimore's potent rushing attack was limited to 55 yards.
Rice as a Decoy
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This seems to be the strategy that Baltimore has used for odd stretches of the year. Ray Rice commands the attention of every defensive player and coordinator when he is on the field. Defensive schemes are designed with the intent of specifically shutting him down. Rice is good enough to make plays regardless, and is a difference maker because of his superior talent.
Baltimore cannot abandon the run even Rice if he gets off to a slow start. The best defenses, like the Steelers last week, can get burned in a split second by the Ravens tailback.
Changing Rice's role in the game and moving him around causes major adjustments from the opponent and will typically allow a player who attracts less attention to slip behind coverage.
Utilize Bernard Pierce
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Bernard Pierce is not Ray Rice. Then again, there are very few running backs in the league that can do the things that Rice can do on the football field. That said, Pierce has provided a decent sample size to the Raven's coaches of what he can do.
With an increased workload over the past four weeks, Pierce has totaled 99 yards on 29 carries. Take in to consideration that two of those four games were against the Pittsburgh defense. Pierce is about four inches taller than Rice and runs more upright, but he has quick feet and has shown that he can get to the outside very quickly.
A combination of Rice and Pierce in the Raven's backfield could pose matchup problems for any defense. Pierce hasn't shown the same ball catching abilities that Rice has, but he does have good speed and can definitely help keep Rice fresh, while Baltimore stays committed to the running game.
Involve the Tight Ends
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When the Baltimore offense is working at its best, there is input from each offensive skill position. The Ravens have made a concerted effort to throw the ball more on offense this year, and a key to their aerial success has been the play of tight end Dennis Pitta.
Pitta is third on the team in targets (70) and receptions (45) and has surpassed Ed Dickson as the top receiving tight end in Baltimore. How does this help get Ray Rice involved?
When Pitta is a viable option, he must be accounted for by the defense. If Pitta can get separation over the middle, the outside is opened up for a screen. Sending him on quick outs pulls help to the outside and softens the center of the field for a check release dump to the middle.
The Baltimore offense has done a solid job of distributing the ball to its offensive weapons. It could be argued that they have done almost too good of a job and have overcompensated at the expense of their best player.