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Troubling trend for the Ravens? Not calling on Ray Rice

Mike Preston

6:41 PM EST, December 3, 2012

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Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was trying not to point any fingers when he was asked about the lack of touches for running back Ray Rice in the Ravens 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I don't know how many touches," said Harbaugh in a sharp tone. "Yes, you can write that story if you want, but that's not the factor in the game."

Fair enough, it is being written. And it was a major factor in the game, second only behind the number of passes thrown by the Steelers across the middle to anyone whose first name was Heath.

After nearly five years of constantly hearing complaints about the lack of touches for Rice, Harbaugh is absolutely correct when he says no one is to blame.

Anyone connected with the offense should be thrown under the bus, including Harbaugh. The Ravens have one of the NFL's premiere playmakers in Rice, and he had only 12 carries for 78 yards and just one reception for 5 yards against the Steelers.

Rice had only five carries in the second half, including two in the third quarter when Rice ended the quarter with a touchdown run of 34 yards, and had a final carry of 10 yards with 1 minute and 52 seconds remaining.

After that, he never touched the ball again. In the fourth quarter, with a seven-point lead as the quarter began and then tied at 20-20 near the midway point, Rice was out of the game plan.

Opposing teams don't have to find a way to defend Rice. The Ravens do it themselves. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron were The Steel Curtain.

"My touches go with the game flow," said Rice after the game. "Obviously, I turned up a huge bunch of yards and we could have ran the ball a little bit more. But you know what? Situational football came into play. We just fell a little short. Our offense is still a young, growing offense and we're going to continue to try and get better each week."

Where is Willis McGahee when you need him?

But we'll get to that later. First, let's deal with the head coach. A week ago, Rice converted a short 10-yard dump off pass into a 30-yard gain on fourth-and-29 in the final minutes against San Diego in what Harbaugh called one of the greatest plays he had ever seen.

And yet on Sunday, the Ravens couldn't call Rice's number in the second half of a game that had huge playoff ramifications. It's easy to blame Cameron, but it starts with Harbaugh. It's his team and he calls the shots. He is the most accountable. He has the last word as far as play selection and if he wants Rice to get the ball, then Rice gets the ball.

And if Cameron doesn't follow orders, then it's Harbaugh's decision to tell him goodbye. But for some reason, it doesn't work that way. Maybe Harbaugh is too intimidated or has too much loyalty, but enough is enough.

Just give Rice the damn ball.

"Ray is our running back, just to be sure. He's our guy," Harbaugh said. "He's the guy we want to have the most carries. We want Bernard [backup Bernard Pierce] to be a complement to Ray, a very good complement. They have different running styles. We think that helps us. It's always good to put more guys on the field. I don't know what argument you could make to not play good players. So, we want to play our guys. We've got two good guys. Ray's our guy. He's our workhorse. and we want to get him the ball as much as we can in as many ways as we can. We want to get the ball to other guys, too. There's only one ball."

Cameron is just plain hard-headed. His stubbornness brings back memories of the 2000 season when then head coach Brian Billick refused to run the ball before slowly building the offense around running back Jamal Lewis and winning a Super Bowl.

With Cameron, it's four seasons and counting. It's not hard to see how this offense should operate. The play by quarterback Joe Flacco and speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith are too inconsistent. The offensive line has holes and tight end Dennis Pitta can disappear from games.

That leaves Rice teaming with the best and most violent lead blocker in the NFL in fullback Vonta Leach. It's a great tandem. Mix in Pierce, and it's the best unit on the team.

It's mind boggling that the Ravens, who had the ball for only 2:17 in the fourth quarter, don't use Rice.

But he is to blame as well. The five-year $40 million contract he signed before the season gives him superstar status, and with that comes a superstar workload. He doesn't have to throw a tirade in public, but he should demand the ball.

And veteran offensive linemen like Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda should have the right to walk into the offices of Harbaugh or Cameron to make their feelings known as well. Former Ravens Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden would.

Instead of veterans like Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed complaining about practices being too long or tough, maybe they should get in Harbaugh's ear about who needs to touch the ball.

It's a simple case and a simple game. When Rice has touched the ball 20 times or more, the Ravens are 32-10. When he has touched it less than 20 times, the Ravens are 12-10.

You do the math. If you want to win the game, you put the ball in the hands of your best player.

That's why you paid Rice so much money.

Isn't it?

mike.preston@baltsun.com