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Ravens: Tough going for Rice against Pats

OWINGS MILLS - Squeezing through a narrow crease in the middle of the New England Patriots' defense, Ravens running back Ray Rice exploded into the Patriots' secondary.

From there, a quick move to avoid a New England defensive back and Rice was free down the sideline for an 83-yard touchdown just one play into the 2009 AFC divisional playoffs.

The big run sparked a 33-14 Baltimore victory. Rice finished the game with 159 yards and two scores.

Since then, however, yards have been harder to come by for Rice against New England.

And against an improved Patriots run defense, the dynamic running back is expecting no different during tonight's matchup with New England.

"You look at the one run I had, ever since then they've played us pretty good," Rice said. "That's a great defense over there, and coach Belichick does a great job. They've got a great number of guys who really rally to the ball really well."

Rice was limited to 88 yards on 28 carries during a 2010 regular season loss to the Patriots and was held to just 67 yards on 21 carries during the Ravens' loss to New England in last season's AFC championship game.

Rice hasn't produced a run of longer than 12 yards against the Patriots since that 2009 divisional playoff game.

He's also been rendered relatively ineffective as a pass-catcher.

He picked up only 38 yards on eight catches, an average of just 4.8 yards per catch, against New England in 2010 and had only one catch for 11 yards during the AFC championship game.

Things don't figure to be any easier tonight.

The Patriots rank fifth in the NFL in rush defense, having limited opponents to an average of just 62.5 yards through their first two games.

New England is yielding just 2.6 yards per carry and has yet to allow a run of longer than 17 yards.

"[Their] linebackers are downhill, physical guys," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "The five inside players are just so physical, and the ends do a great job of pushing everything back into those guys against the run. And of course, Vince Wilfork, he's just a force in the middle. [It's] just a really, really good defense."

Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo have both been presences in the middle of the Patriots' defense for several years now, but New England has also been aided by the addition of rookie linebackers Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower.

Jones and Hightower, both selected during the first round of April's NFL draft, are tied for second the team with 10 tackles.

The Patriots ranked 17th in the NFL against the run last season.

New England's pass defense is improved as well, currently ranked seventh-best in the league after finishing second-to-last a year ago.

"When you add two first-round picks and they're both starting, it's for a reason," Rice said. "Those two guys are playing really well.

Rice has seen limited carries through the Ravens' first two games as Baltimore has transitioned to more of an up-tempo, pass-heavy offense, but he's been effective when called upon.

He's carried the ball just 26 times, but has picked up 167 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 6.4 yards per carry.

He also continues to be a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield.

"From where I'm at, you look at the first two weeks of the year and I think this is my highest yards per carry since I've been a pro," Rice said. "And like I've said, the [carries] really don't matter to me...because I know how effective I can be in the passing game."

He had six catches for 53 yards in last week's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

"Last week was just a little bit of the proving point that when you think I'm protecting, I can get out in open space and make a guy miss," Rice said. "All it takes is one big play in the pass game to change a game."

And despite the Ravens' emphasis on the pass through their first two games, former Patriots linebacker and special teamer Matt Chatham, now of the Boston Herald, believes "stopping Rice" should be the biggest priority for New England's defense entering tonight's game.

"Rice is the most dynamic offensive player the Ravens will have on the field," Chatham wrote. "Every opportunity [the Ravens] have to send the ball elsewhere is one I think the Patriots will gladly take.

He's a guy you have to be aware of, obviously in the run game and in the designed short passing game," Chatham added. "But he's also dangerous as a late outlet after chip-blocking on defensive ends, or as a late leaker from the backfield after a pocket has been cleared and serious real estate has been cleared by vertical receiver run-off."Reach staff writer Matt Zenitz at 410-857-7896 or matt.zenitz@carrollcountytimes.com.

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