Ravens running back Ray Rice has not rumbled into the second or third level often this season, but it seems that whenever he has, he has often been dragged down by the first defender he encounters. In the past, he might have ran through arm tackles or left them grasping at air with a sharp cut in the open field.
His inability to force missed tackles is symptomatic of the entire Ravens offense, whose playmakers usually haven’t been able to wiggle free whenever they have met resistance from the defense this season.
So on Thursday, I asked Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell whether coaches can teach players to break tackles at this level or if it is something that has to be innate to the players at this point in their careers.
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“It’s an interesting question because you try and break a tackle every single time you have the ball in your arm,” Caldwell said. “Certain guys have a knack because of ... their leverage, their body position or maybe it’s their speed getting to the edge of a player.”
The Ravens should be breaking more tackles considering some of the impressive athletes they have on the offensive side of the ball. But through 12 games, their offensive skill position players have forced just 47 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Four NFL running backs have forced more missed tackles by themselves.
Part of the issue has been that Rice has become one of the NFL’s least elusive backs.
Out of the 26 running backs who have received at least half of their team’s carries, Rice has by far broken the fewest tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. On 211 touches, Rice has forced just 10 missed tackles, half as many as Tennessee's Chris Johnson, who ranks 25th among qualifying running backs. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch leads all NFL running backs with 66 broken tackles, and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, whom the Ravens defense will face Sunday, is second with 65.
Backup running back Bernard Pierce has fared a little better, forcing 20 missed tackles on 135 touches, but he has broken just seven tackles in his past nine games.
“I think every guy has their own way of doing it. Some guys outrun you and get to that point. Some guys run over you with just sheer power. I think on our team, I think we’ve got a good mix of both,” Caldwell said. “Look at our backfield. Ray can do a little bit of both, but Pierce is a pretty good load, and so is Vonta [Leach].”
The Ravens don't have a single wide receiver who ranks in the top 30 at the position in broken tackles. Rookie Marlon Brown leads the group with five missed tackles forced. Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones have three apiece, though an argument can be made that you don’t need to break tackles when you’re that fast.
“Speed is a real factor because of instead of a guy being able to wrap you up, he’s reaching with one arm,” Caldwell said. “Shiftiness is also a factor. A guy gets a guy a little off balance and he can attack an edge.”
Tight ends Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson have combined to force just five missed tackles on 47 catches.
Caldwell’s comments suggest that while the coaches can teach techniques for escaping tacklers, they can’t teach things like speed, agility, toughness and instincts.
Rice and his teammates possess some of those qualities -- in the past, Rice showed that he had a combination of them all -- but for whatever reason, they have not been making opponents miss this season. Instead of juking defenders out of their cleats, the Ravens more often have been knocked on their seats.