Ray Rice May Once Again Be the Receiving Savior of the Ravens Passing Game
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The idea of "Rice the Receiver" isn't anything new. As Wilson points out, Rice has had the most receptions of any running back since coming into the league in 2008 (311), and he has the second-most receiving yards among running backs (2,713). The idea of Rice being a top receiver in the Ravens offense, with Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator, is something new, however.
It's not a bad choice for Baltimore in 2013, especially as the team searches for a reliable receiving replacement for Anquan Boldin, whom it traded to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick. In 2011, Rice had 104 targets—just one less than Boldin, who led the team—and he's regularly amassed 500 or more receiving yards in a season, including over 700, twice.
Rice's overall offensive role appeared to diminish in 2012. Both his 1,143 rushing and 478 receiving yards were his lowest totals since his rookie season. This wasn't because of any real or perceived decline in Rice's abilities—he's never been injured and is four years away from the dreaded age 30. It was more about the personnel around him and the man tasked, for most of the season, with coordinating them.
From a personnel standpoint, quarterback Joe Flacco had the best supporting cast of his NFL career. In addition to Rice and the reliable Boldin, he also had second-year receiver Torrey Smith, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson as well as free-agent addition Jacoby Jones, all of whom (save Dickson) had over 400 receiving yards apiece.
A major reason for Flacco's good season—especially late in the year and through the playoffs—was Boldin. His absence on the roster leaves a major void, one that Smith, Pitta, Dickson or any of the Ravens' other receivers won't be able to fill. Until the Ravens can find someone reliable enough to take on Boldin's role while Smith and the tight ends reprise their own, Rice could be a more-than-suitable option for Flacco.
This seems to run counter to what the Ravens have been prodded to do over the past few seasons, especially when Cam Cameron was their offensive coordinator. A common criticism is that Rice was catching too many passes, with Flacco throwing too many checkdowns rather than the Ravens trying to find more, dedicated receivers.
The conflation of Cameron's conservative play-calling combined with Flacco's issues when facing pressure resulted in pass after pass thrown Rice's way, even when there were other receivers he could target farther down the field. There are reasons for checkdowns to running backs—plays like these are designed for a reason—but there were also occasions in which Flacco would do so because he was hearing footsteps rather than reading his progression.
Rice being more involved in the passing game this time around would be for different reasons. While the Ravens continue to search for another receiver to make an impact, Rice provides an excellent stopgap. He's proven before that he can be a force in the passing offense and now that Flacco is a better, more comfortable quarterback, it should produce even greater results.
The question is whether or not Caldwell, the Ravens' new offensive coordinator, is interested in doing so. The sample size is small in Baltimore, with Caldwell taking over for Cameron in Week 15. From Week 15 through the Super Bowl, Rice was targeted by Flacco 26 times, an average of 4.3 targets per game; prior to Week 15, Rice was targeted 61 times, or just over an average of five per game.
If that holds in 2013, then Caldwell shouldn't be calling for fewer passes to Rice than his predecessor. Though Caldwell didn't have many passes thrown his running backs' way when he was at the helm for the Indianapolis Colts, the structure of the offense in Baltimore is different.
He appears to have already embraced this, not really changing up how Rice is used as both a rusher and receiver. As such, expect Rice to get around four or five—if not seven or eight—passing targets per game this year, depending on how they feel about whoever becomes the No. 2 receiver alongside Smith.
Granted, the use of Rice in a heavy receiving role has drawn criticism to the Ravens and to Flacco in the past, but the circumstances in 2013 are a bit different than those in 2011. While the core of the reason why Rice would get increased targets remains the same—a lack of options for Flacco—this time around, it's not about Flacco needing to bail out of plays but rather, the need for someone to help him make them.
Rice's desire to catch more passes can only be good for the Ravens this year, as long as they actually give him more passes to catch.
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