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How Ray Rice Can Rebound from Early-Season Struggles

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How Ray Rice Can Rebound from Early-Season Struggles
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Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice has had his fair share of struggles over the first half of the 2013 season. Rice has a career-low average of just 2.7 yards per carry. In each of his five previous seasons, he has managed to average at least 4.0 yards per carry with the Ravens.

However, the recent struggles of Rice are not indicative of how he will perform for the remainder of this season. There have been plenty of factors that have contributed to his decline in production—many of which will not continue over Baltimore's final eight games.

Over the Ravens' first eight games, an unfamiliar question has surfaced: Has Rice lost a step? During an interview with Garrett Downing of the Ravens' official website, Rice responded to the criticism:

Everybody has these situations. A down year is not going to make or break me as a person. I’ve been through a lot worse than averaging what I’m averaging in carries. I got broad shoulders. I’ll take it. If you watch the film, you’d understand that we’ve been playing pretty good fronts. We’ve got eight games left, and that’s my focus now.

Rice said what he needed to say, and he was completely correct. Over the first half of the season, Baltimore has faced some stiff competition against the run:

Ravens' 2013 Opponents vs. the Run
Week Opponent Rank vs. Run
1 Broncos 3rd
2 Browns 7th
3 Texans 18th
4 Bills 17th
5 Dolphins 21st
6 Packers 5th
7 Steelers 31st
9 Browns 7th

ESPN.com

Four of the Ravens' first eight opponents have top-10 rated run defenses. The others are formidable in their own rights as well. The lowest-ranked defense they have played was the Pittsburgh Steelers—a divisional opponent that always plays the AFC North tough, no matter their defensive ranking.

Adding insult to injury—no pun intended—Rice may not have been as healthy as he let on over the first half of the season.

During an episode of NFL Network's "Around the League Live," WBAL-TV's Gerry Sandusky told the media that Rice had not been as healthy as he seemed, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com. This statement came after Sandusky had a lengthy conversation with the running back.

An unfavorable schedule along with lingering injuries doesn't bode well for any NFL running back.

To make matters worse for Rice is the lackluster play of 2012 Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco. A tremendous loss of weapons due to trades and injury have left the Ravens pass offense stagnant. Flacco has had his worst year as a pro in 2013. He has completed 184 of 310 passes for 2,167 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions for a passer rating of just 79.3.

Without the threat of a deadly aerial attack, defenses have paid extra attention to Rice—the team's most explosive player.

So, how can Rice and the Ravens offense right the ship for the remainder of the season?

Chris Wesseling of NFL.com reported that Rice will be heavily involved in the offense going forward, according to an interview with head coach John Harbaugh:

We need to get Ray involved in every single way. Passing game, run game, every single way. It's definitely important for us, we want to do that every week, and obviously we did not do a good job of that on Sunday.

This is the absolute best game plan for the Ravens over the second half of the 2013 season. The lopsided offensive attack that Baltimore has put on display this year has not nearly been successful. Flacco has thrown 310 times this season compared to just 97 rushing attempts by Rice.

There is absolutely no reason why the Ravens should have more than a 3-to-1 ratio between the pass and run this year. Luckily for Baltimore, Harbaugh has seen the light.

The Ravens are clearly dedicated to the run going forward. This has been obvious after a huge trade for former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle Eugene Monroe.

Monroe has been ranked 25th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2013 with a positive-0.8 grade blocking for the run, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That kind of dominance along the offensive line has been sorely needed in Baltimore this year.

Looking ahead at upcoming opponents, things are looking up for Rice and Baltimore's running game for the second-half of the season:

Ravens' Upcoming Opponents vs. the Run
Week Opponent Rank vs. Run
10 Bengals 10th
11 Bears 29th
12 Jets 1st
13 Steelers 31st
14 Vikings 11th
15 Lions 14th
16 Patriots 30th
17 Bengals 10th

ESPN.com

Aside from the stout defensive front of the New York Jets, the Ravens could certainly find some running room during their final eight games. They do play the Cincinnati Bengals—ranked 10th overall against the run—twice; however, after the loss of star defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the Bengals could find themselves struggling in that department.

Things certainly have not begun the way Rice and the Ravens had anticipated for 2013. But, the clear dedication to the run—and getting the ball in Rice's hands—by Harbaugh will allow Rice to become the team's offensive catalyst going forward.

Don't count out the explosiveness of Ray Rice just yet.

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