If quarterback Joe Flacco was having a bad day, the offense would go through Rice. If there was nothing open down the field, Flacco would find the diminutive yet durable running back and watch him pick up positive yards. If the Ravens needed to pick up a key third down — or if it was fourth-and-29 — they'd get the ball to Rice and take their chances.
But more than a third of the way through this season, the Ravens search for a competent running game remains mystifying and Rice, their three-time Pro Bowl back, has provided far more questions than answers.
As the Ravens prepare for Sunday's showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, Rice's role in the team's running woes has become a source of great debate. Is the struggling offensive line mostly the cause of the NFL's 27th-ranked rushing attack or should Rice get a significant part of the blame?
"When I look at running games, there's never one reason that a running game doesn't work and there's never one reason that it does work. It's a combination of things and it starts up front," said former Denver Broncos Pro Bowl running back Terrell Davis. "You've got to have some lanes up front. There's got to be some good push where a back's vision will allow him to see where the seams are. After that, it's up to the back. He's got to get more than what the play gives him and there were a few runs that I did see on video where he's letting one guy bring him down [that] I believe last year, he would have broken those tackles."
Rice is off to his worst start since becoming the team's primary back in 2009. His 197 rushing yards through five games — he sat out Week 3 with a hip flexor strain — rank 34th in the NFL and trail the rushing output of three quarterbacks. He's on pace to finish with 630 rushing yards after averaging 1,267 over the past four seasons.
He's gaining just 2.8 yards per carry, which ranks last among current starting running backs, despite never averaging under 4.0 yards per carry for a season during his career. He's already lost two fumbles and one of the league's most dangerous all-purpose threats, Rice is on pace to finish with 278 receiving yards, which would be his lowest since his rookie year.
Davis, now an analyst for NFL Network, reviewed many of Rice's 91 total touches and saw several instances where Rice wasn't able to beat a linebacker, matchups he has watched him routinely win in the past. However, Davis feels most of the factors that have contributed to a punchless Ravens' running game go well beyond Rice's control.
"I didn't see a whole lot of room to run up front and some of it seems to be a little schematic," Davis said. "I was watching some of the plays and they tend to pull their guards a lot. I'm not a big fan of that. It just muddies the water for a back. I also know that he had the hip flexor and even prior to that, he wasn't getting a whole lot of [carries]."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that the coaching staff is reviewing the team's blocking schemes and could make some changes before Sunday. He has been consistent in saying that the team's running woes are "collective."
Rice, who is in the second year of a five-year, $35 million contract, didn't talk to reporters Wednesday though he's expected to later this week. He did admit in a brief interview after Sunday's 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers that the lack of execution in the running game left him a "little frustrated."
"I think we're all just frustrated at a certain level," quarterback Joe Flacco said Wednesday. "But I don't see him any more frustrated than he normally is. He's still himself. … Any time you get a little banged up and aren't 100 percent, you have to take a little bit of time before you can really expect to have full explosion."
Rice just 26 years old, is known for having a strong work ethic and being in great shape, and he's said on multiple occasions that he feels fresh, especially with backup Bernard Pierce carrying part of the load. Nobody with the team has voiced concern that Rice is slowing down.
Former Raven Jamal Lewis, who holds just about all of the team's rushing records, doesn't see anything with Rice that suggests a long-term concern. However, Lewis said he doesn't see Rice being as decisive as he's been in the past.
"Me watching from the outside looking in, I see [hesitancy] in both him and Pierce," Lewis said. "Any time you take the ball and your second step is side-to-side, that's pretty much doubt. That's not having trust in your offensive line. The play is already drawn up where the hole is and where it's supposed to be. There should be no hesitation in where you go. When you have doubt, that's when your second step is not north and south, it's east and west. That's a problem as a running back."
Lewis rattled off several things going against Rice, including the hip injury, defenses focused on stopping him, the team's lack of commitment to the run and the struggles along the offensive line. However, he said that the onus is on Rice to get things corrected.
"As a running back, you have to adjust to the cards that you were dealt and when I say the cards that you were dealt, that means the people that are around you, the offensive line you have," Lewis said. "I still think there's hope for the running game but at the same time, Ray Rice probably has to do some more studying, he's got to be able to figure out how to match up to the defenses that they are going against. That's why you get paid the big bucks."
On 40 of Rice's 71 carries, he's gotten two yards or less. That includes 20 carries for either zero or negative yardage. Rice and Pierce, who is also gaining only 2.8 yards per carry, clearly haven't had much space to operate. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ravens' rushers were hit in the backfield on nine of their 21 designed runs against the Packers, the highest total since Week 1 of the 2010 season.