As a former Raven, Jamal Lewis still has tight relationships with many people in the organization and he watches the team closely, so he didn’t have to go back and look at video to determine what is going on with Ray Rice and the Ravens’ running game.
Terrell Davis and Jerome Bettis, both former star running backs who now work as network analysts, have watched tape of Rice recently, curious about why one of the game’s most dangerous all-purpose threats is averaging under 3 yards per carry and is in the midst of his worst start since his rookie year in 2008.
I spoke over the phone to all three on Wednesday and their opinions on Rice were pretty similar. They believe the diminutive running back’s struggles are a combination of many factors, most out of his control. Bettis, in particular, was adamant that other than a little sluggishness that he chalks up to the hip injury that sidelined Rice for Week 3, he doesn’t see a big difference in Rice from previous seasons.
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"You have to understand after the hip flexor injury, he’s going to be a tick off picking that leg up. But before the hip flexor, I didn’t see anything that would indicate that he was slowing down. Sometimes a running back will do that because of the carries but I didn’t see that happening,” said Bettis, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who now works for ESPN. “I’ve watched him and he’s not doing anything different. I watched to try and see if it was him missing some holes or reads, or kind of doing some things different. But he’s not getting the opportunities. It takes some times to get into the flow, get into the feel of the game, and to impose your will on the other team and he’s not getting the opportunity.”
Rice is averaging 14 carries a game, just two more than backup Bernard Pierce who has played one more game than Rice has.
“He needs 20-30 touches,” Bettis said of Rice. “That’s the kind of running back he is. They are doing him a disservice by not getting him the football more and part of it is, they are trying to bring [along] another running back. I think you’ve got to let him carry the load. I think they are platooning as opposed to really letting him be the guy. I think that’s a huge problem.”
Lewis, who holds just about all of the Ravens’ rushing records, agrees that the running back-by-committee approach can prevent the starter from getting enough carries and capturing a feel and rhythm for the game. He also says that Rice has a target on him and teams are able to focus on stopping him with Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ passing game in flux in the early part of the season.
Then, there is the offensive line, which has taken most of the heat for the team’s running woes. Lewis said that he’s noticed far too often Rice and Pierce hesitating, rather than heading straight up the field. He said that tells him that the running backs have doubts that a hole is going to open up and aren't completely confident in the offensive line.
“If there is inconsistency within the offensive line and is there is any kind of doubt in Ray Rice’s head where he doesn’t have that confidence in his offensive line, it’s basically not good,” Lewis said. “You really have to buckle down and say, ‘OK, I need to get a hold of this thing and get a handle on it real quick,’’ cause it’s going to affect the running game even worse when you get down to November and December when the running game really counts.”
Lewis shared Bettis’ opinion, saying that he doesn’t believe that the Ravens should have long-term concerns about Rice, who is only 26 years old.
Davis, the former Denver Broncos star, made it clear that the Ravens’ running game problem starts up front, and he’s skeptical with some of the blocking schemes that the team has been using under new run game coordinator Juan Castillo. He said he noticed the Ravens' guards pull a lot, which he feels makes it tough on runnning backs at times.
“I did see some runs were I was like, ‘Man, that blocking scheme seems to be a little confusing,’” Davis said. “There was one play in the Broncos game where the left guard [Kelechi Osemele] had pulled and they had a six-man front. Any time you have six people in the box, the numbers favor the running game. And they pulled the left guard who blocked absolutely no one. He just pulled himself out of the picture. It was six-on-six, but it became defense six and [offensive] line four and Denver hit them for no gain. They got absolutely nothing out of that look and they really should have gotten more. They created more gaps when they pulled the left guard versus doing it with the [man-to-man] concepts.”
Davis, however, didn’t totally absolve Rice, who he says is not winning the individual matchups against tacklers as consistently as he did in years past.
“When I say not getting more out of the play than the play gives you, it means being tackled by the first guy. There have been some instances where I see that has been the case,” Davis said. “Not only in the running game, there have been a couple of hot routes where they give him the ball in space. That’s when you’re supposed to win when you’re one-on-one with a linebacker and he hasn’t won those. There’s a few times I saw on video where he was, I call it hugging a down block. And he would bounce wide on it and he would miss a hole. Those are opportunities that were wasted as well.”
Davis also wondered if Rice was totally healthy, saying, “It’s not the same as last year. I’ll tell you that.”