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Ray Rice remains optimistic the running game will improve

FootballPro FootballBaltimore RavensBernard PierceJoe FlaccoRay Rice

It was his turn, so Ray Rice thrust himself off an adjacent table and landed right behind a microphone without spilling so much as a drop of his drink.

"That should answer the questions about my hip," Rice said, suppressing a smile.

The questions predictably still came Wednesday — about Rice's health, his subpar numbers and his hold on the starting running-back spot. Rice answered each one, his tone neither defiant nor defensive.

In the midst of probably the toughest stretch of his six-year career, Rice maintained that he pays no attention to the criticism and he's not bothered by the talk that backup Bernard Pierce could have a more prominent role in the running game going forward. He also refused to blame his struggles on the hip flexor injury that sidelined him for one game and has seemingly limited his explosiveness and elusiveness in others.

"Once I get a little space, you'll see I'm clear off the injury," Rice said. "It's an ongoing battle that you just have to keep working through. This is something different for me, it's something different for the offensive line, and it's something different for all of us. It's something we're not used to. In the grand scheme of things, we did come out with a win last week. I don't want to harp too much on it, but it's something that needs to be corrected. We'll work on it."

The Ravens (4-5) play the Chicago Bears (5-4) Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field, a matchup that Rice would normally be expected to exploit. Long removed from their "Monsters of the Midway" days, the Bears have the second worst run defense in all of football, having allowed 129.4 yards per game rushing and 10 rushing touchdowns.

However, the Ravens' running game, and Rice in particular, haven't had success against anybody this season. Their 73.1 yards per game average on the ground is the third worst in football. Their 2.8 yard per carry average is tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the worst in football.

Rice, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who has averaged 1,267 rushing yards a season since becoming the Ravens' featured back in 2009, has just 289 yards on 115 carries this season, and is on pace to finish with 576 yards. He's also last in the NFL with an average of 2.5 yards per carry.

"I don't need to prove I'm a Pro Bowler," Rice said. "I've been there three times already and I've won a Super Bowl. Proving all that stuff all over again is not in my best interest. It's trying to do whatever I can to make the Baltimore Ravens win football games. As long as I'm able to do that, I'm fine with that. If I'm lacking in one area, go look at how I'm doing in pass protection. Go look at how I'm working with my offensive line, helping those guys communicate with Joe [Flacco, the quarterback]. They're just statistics and numbers that a lot of the world gets caught up in. Right now, the only statistic or number that matters is a 'W.'"

Rice, 26, also said that he has "no doubt at all" that he'll be able to return to his old form over the Ravens' final seven games.

"If I doubted myself, I wouldn't be where I am today," Rice said. "I'm at full strength. The Ravens are going to need me at full strength late in the year. It might be a blessing in disguise that I went through something early. Now, we're trying to get back on track, so I can get myself back to whatever you call 'full strength.' I know I'm able to make plays. I leave the doubt and the naysayers out there. When there's opportunity, you'll definitely see it. We just haven't had the opportunity to show it."

Rice's longest run this season is 14 yards, gains eclipsed by Pierce and the quarterbacks, Flacco and Tyrod Taylor. Even in the passing game, where he has been considered one of the league's top all-purpose threats, Rice is averaging just 4.9 yards per completion, and he has yet to show the ability to consistently win matchups in space against linebackers and defensive backs. Coming into the season, he averaged 8.7 yards per catch.

Nobody has disputed the fact that the Ravens' offensive line has struggled and holes to run through have been tough to find. Pierce is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry after averaging 4.9 last year. However, to Rice's credit, he hasn't pointed fingers, and his teammates are not about to start casting blame on him.

"It's never one guy," Flacco said. "We're working on this thing as a team. As I said, we've just got to be better all around. It's not one thing or one guy that's holding us back. If we were doing some other things better, than Ray would have more room and he'd be able to get in more one-on-one situations and make guys miss."

Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs has long called for getting Rice more touches and he said Wednesday that to "close the door" on the running back would be a mistake.

"We've got seven games left, and I've still got all the confidence in the world in Ray Rice," Suggs said. "He's one of the best players in this league, one of the best running backs in this league, and we have a lot of success with games when No.27 has got his hands on the ball. So, as long as we stick with that, I think we'll be fine."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that he doesn't view replacing Rice with Pierce as the featured back as a "solution" to the team's meek running game. Harbaugh said that both players will get plenty of carries and the team will lean more on what back is more productive on that particular day.

"Needless to say, I know I'm a huge playmaker on this team," Rice said. "I've won a lot or games around here with this team. I helped out with everything that we've done around here, but I can't do it by myself. I'm not that guy. I'm not selfish. … You get judged by your performance [and] we have to play better. We have to help our offensive line play better and we'll continue to do that."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JeffZrebiecSun

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FootballPro FootballBaltimore RavensBernard PierceJoe FlaccoRay Rice
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