The Ravens' loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday wasn’t the first time they have strayed from their Pro Bowl back in the running game. But usually when they went pass-happy in the past, Ray Rice was still a factor as a receiver. That was not the case Sunday, as Rice was held without a catch for the first time in a regular-season game -- not counting Week 17 last year because he barely played -- since the final game in 2010.
Quarterback Joe Flacco threw 50 passes in the 23-20 loss, but he only targeted Rice once, on that odd fourth-quarter play when he tried to throw a jump ball to the 5-foot-8 running back in the end zone.
Asked on Wednesday about Rice’s role as a receiver in Sunday's game, coach John Harbaugh said that Rice was often asked to hang back and help the offensive line in pass protection by blocking blitzing linebackers.
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According to Pro Football Focus, Rice was a pass blocker on 12 plays and ran routes on 24 plays, though there could be some overlap there, as there were plays in which the running back chipped a pass rusher on his way out of the backfield into a route, but before Rice was able to navigate out of that traffic, the football was already out.
Rice was asked about his role, too, and also about Flacco attempting 31 straight passes between handoffs. He said he understands why the Ravens abandoned the run.
“I knew that if we weren’t going to run it, I know every protection, I know every blitz pickup and that was my role,” Rice said of staying in the backfield to pass protect Sunday. “And if I got the ball out of the backfield with a screen or something that we had to do, I was going to do whatever it takes to try to win that football game.”
There were no designed pass plays for Rice, though, and it looked like the Bills made a point to pound Rice, who is still dealing with a hip injury, whenever he tried to escape into the flat or slip out into the middle of the field. Rice acknowledged that chipping can be a two-way street when running backs have to briefly block blitzers.
“One thing I know that’s important is for Joe Flacco to not to get touched. So if it’s a week where they want me to chip, I’ll chip,” he said. “But there’s times where I’m releasing and they’ll abandon their pass rush and chip me.”
Pass protection is an area that Rice has worked hard on but can still improve. He did a passable job Sunday, allowing just one quarterback hurry, according to Pro Football Focus. On Wednesday, he said the Ravens needed his blocks to give Flacco time to attempt passes deep downfield and that dump-offs wouldn’t have done much good.
But as we saw in San Diego last season, big plays can improbably happen on the shortest of passes to Rice.
The Ravens fell behind by more than two scores in the Week 1 loss to the Denver Broncos, but Rice was still targeted 10 times and caught eight passes for 35 yards. After catching three passes against the Cleveland Browns, he was targeted just once Sunday. Perhaps his lingering hip injury also slowed Rice on his way out into routes.
Flacco acknowledged Wednesday that the Ravens have to get the ball to Rice one way or another. Harbaugh agreed that Rice needs to be more involved as a receiver.
“Absolutely,” Harbaugh said. “We need to get Ray out. We had some five-man protections where he was releasing, but we just weren’t able to get him the ball. They were covering him and had a guy on him pretty tight. But we need to get Ray involved, in every single way -- the pass game, run game, every single way. It’s definitely going to be important for us. We want to do it every week and obviously we didn’t do a good job of that last Sunday.”