The walks back to the huddle have been shorter for Ray Rice over the past month and a half.
With opponents crowding the line of scrimmage to keep him under wraps, the Ravens running back hasn't gotten far on many of his recent carries, leaving his offensive linemen, who have played unevenly of late, to yank him up off the turf after short gains and direct him back to the huddle.
"Have I seen the holes that I've wanted? Not exactly," Rice admitted Wednesday.
The Ravens rank 21st in rushing yards and 18th in yards per carry, and only eight quarterbacks have been sacked more often than Joe Flacco. But while their offensive linemen cannot hide from criticism whenever Rice hits a wall or Flacco hits the turf, Rice said he isn't worried about his big blockers, who at times have gotten pushed around on the field in recent weeks.
"Our offensive line is what we have," Rice said, showing support. "They are not a patchwork group. They are a group that's mixed with veterans and young players that are getting better each week."
But it is fair to question exactly how much better the offensive line has gotten since Week 1.
Young tackles Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele have each been beaten for at least one sack in consecutive weeks. The Ravens are now onto their third left guard, and head coach John Harbaugh acknowledges the position remains in flux. Center Matt Birk and right guard Marshal Yanda have been reliable, but Yanda is the only lineman who has consistently played at a high level.
Harbaugh said he thought the offensive line played well in Sunday's 16-13 overtime win over the San Diego Chargers, especially after halftime, though he was not pleased that Flacco was sacked five times. Rice averaged more than 4 yards per carry for the first time in a month.
"We just need to keep executing. That's really about it," Yanda said. "We have seen what we can do. We just need to get a hat on a hat and get the guys blocked and let Ray do his thing."
But as opponents key in on the running game — something that Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin freely admits his team will do this weekend — Rice isn't getting much room to do his thing.
Rice is fourth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 108.9 per game, but he hasn't rushed for 100 yards in a game since Week 5. The past six games, Rice averaged 3.6 yards per carry and the Ravens collectively averaged 3.4 yards. Rice ran for fewer than 3 yards per carry in wins against the Oakland Raiders and the Steelers, who held him to 40 yards on 20 carries on Nov. 18.
Their rushing totals trended upward in San Diego as Rice rushed for 97 yards on 22 carries and rookie backup Bernard Pierce totaled 34 yards on nine carries, even though the Chargers often crept one of their safeties up into the box. But according to Pro Football Focus, Rice broke five tackles and 65 of his yards came after contact — an average of 2.95 yards after contact per carry.
Their short-yardage struggles continued, too, as Pierce was stuffed on one fourth-and-inches play.
"We didn't face a slouch defense," Rice said of the Chargers' sixth-ranked run defense. "The mixture between me and Bernard, we did get over 100 [yards]. That's something each week that you take pride in. We had some really good holes last week regardless of the situation."
And then there is the issue of pass protection, as Flacco's durability has been put to the test. He has been sacked 26 times this season and knocked down, sometimes with very hard hits, on 52 dropbacks.
After being sacked twice in the previous two games, he was sacked five times by the Chargers. According to Pro Football Focus, it took the Chargers an average time of 2.32 seconds to sack Flacco on those plays. Ideally, offensive linemen want to hold off pass rushers for at least three seconds.
"We definitely want to cut down on the sacks, getting Joe hit," Oher said. "It's not a good look."
Growing pains were to be expected when the Ravens went with a youth movement on the offensive line. They moved Oher back to left tackle, sat older and more expensive veterans in tackle Bryant McKinnie and guard Bobbie Williams, and plugged recent draft picks into the line.
Osemele, a 2012 second-round pick who has started every game at right tackle, flashes power as a run blocker, but he continues to struggle when engaging speed rushers. He was beaten twice for sacks in the first half on Sunday. He has declined interview requests in recent weeks.
Another youngster, Reid, has started the past two games at left guard, but Harbaugh says he "could imagine" Williams or Ramon Harewood "getting worked back in" as the Ravens attempt to fill the void left when Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs signed with the New Orleans Saints in the offseason.
"They are young, so experience is going to be the most important thing for them," Yanda said. "Sometimes stuff happens, but they are trying and playing hard. That's all that you can ask for."
The Ravens will need more from not just their young guys, but their entire offensive line from here on out. The Steelers, Denver Broncos, and Cincinnati Bengals all rank in the top 10 in total defense, and the Broncos, Bengals and New York Giants are in the top five in the NFL in sacks.
But as the Ravens close the regular season with that potentially-punishing stretch, Rice, who has ran to a pair of Pro Bowls in the past behind unheralded Ravens offensive lines, has the big guys' backs.
"Those guys, they're the ones after I get tackled, they're picking me up, saying, 'Ray, let's go,'" said Rice, who has rushed for 794 yards and seven touchdowns. "I feel the same way about them."
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