By Aaron Wilson
The Baltimore Sun
12:51 PM EST, November 22, 2013
Running back Ray Rice thoroughly enjoyed the resurgence of the Ravens' running game against the Chicago Bears and was still smiling days later in the locker room.
"It did feel good to get out in the open and get some yards," said Rice, who gained a season-high 131 rushing yards against the league's 31st-ranked run defense Sunday. "We didn't get it done [and win], but we really took a step in the right direction."
Now, the Ravens are hoping to avoid taking a step backward against one of the stingiest defenses.
The Ravens (4-6) are about to face one of the stoutest front sevens in the NFL against the New York Jets on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. The Jets have the top-ranked run defense in the league, led by one of the best young defensive linemen in the game, Muhammad Wilkerson
They're allowing only 73.2 rushing yards a game, shutting down running backs behind Wilkerson (6-foot-4, 315 pounds), nose tackle Damon "Big Snacks" Harrison (6-4, 350), rookie defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson (6-3, 294) and outside linebacker Quinton Coples (6-6, 290)
"They're some big, powerful guys who aren't just big and powerful," Rice said. "They can move. You have to get movement to even gain a yard. You can't let them feast. We got our work cut out for us. Needless to say, we're prepared for a very physical football game. ...
"[Jets coach] Rex Ryan [is] well-respected. What they've built up there is similar to what we're used to seeing. They've got a Cleveland, Pittsburgh kind of front. The first thing they do in their front is say, 'Stop the run.' It's going to be a heck of a challenge."
The Ravens gained a season-high 174 rushing yards against the Bears, including a season-long 47-yard run by Rice. They're still 27th in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 83.2 yards per game.
"We took a step, but it's not enough," left tackle Eugene Monroe said. "Still not consistent enough, so we'll continue to work on it."
That work begins with the task of blocking Wilkerson, who has emerged as a playmaking presence in his third NFL season out of Temple. The first-round draft pick has 40 tackles, a career-high eight sacks and two forced fumbles and an interception.
A former Ravens defensive coordinator who coached several Pro Bowl defensive linemen during his time in Baltimore, Ryan considers Wilkerson to be as good as any of the players he's coached.
"He’s right there with them," Ryan said. "Plays the run great, and he can play inside-outside. The difference with him, he’s a big man, great length and the longest arm span in the league. He’s a rare cat in that way. He can do it all. It’s been a long line of outstanding players that I’ve been fortunate to coach, and he’s right there with them.”
Monroe played against Wilkerson twice when he was with the Jacksonville Jaguars, including the preseason this year.
"Wilkerson has been playing well since he's been in the league," Monroe said. "It will be a nice challenge. He's a very active, very athletic player."
The Jets have surrendered only 2.9 yards per carry. Opponents have only tried to run the ball 249 times against them, an average of 24.9 times per game.
"They give you all kinds of problems," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "They have very, very good personnel up front. They’re big, they’re physical, and they hit and run with the best of them.
"They compound issues, they present problems for you, but their personnel presents problems for you from a schematic standpoint. We’ll have to look at all those things closely and try to get in the best situation for us.”
The Ravens increased Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach's playing time to 18 snaps against the Bears. It's unclear if they'll attempt to run as much against the Jets.
"The running game took big steps last week, we want to continue that this week," Leach said. "Front seven is very stout, they make a lot of big plays. They cause a lot of negative runs. We're going to have our hands full."
Rice said the Ravens need to be decisive and take whatever yards they can find as quickly as they can find them against the Jets.
"We need to be honest with ourselves, get a hat on a hat," Rice said. "The old saying, 'If there's two yards, we need to take two yards.' If it's a 20-yard gain and it happens, we need to make the 20.
"If they're going to let you, plow in there for two yards. The one big thing as a running back is avoiding being tackled for a loss. We always want to be on the plus side of things."