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Ravens' Ray Rice an Unexpected Star

Nov 30, 2009 – 4:15 PM
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Thomas George

Thomas George %BloggerTitle%

Ray RiceBALTIMORE -- Ray Rice showed during his collegiate days at Rutgers that he was a dominant running back as he fueled the Scarlet Knights' offense. Rice showed in his combine workouts last year that he could be a complementary NFL back -- maybe a third-down wonder. Certainly, most scouts concluded, he was not big enough or fast enough to fuel an NFL offense.

So, Rice went to work as a rookie last year with 107 carries and 33 receptions in primarily a reserve role and helped lead the Ravens to the AFC championship game.

This season, he is more than a complement.

Rice was a cornerstone of the Ravens offense in their 20-17 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers here on Sunday night. He rushed 19 times for 88 yards and caught five passes for 67 yards. His 44-yard catch on fourth-and-5, where he dusted Steelers linebacker James Farrior in a one-on-one matchup, led to the Baltimore field goal that tied the game at 17-17 late in the fourth quarter. He helped set up the Ravens' game-winning overtime kick with four consecutive runs, totaling 19 yards, that took his team down to the Pittsburgh 9-yard line.

He is 5-foot-8, 210 pounds -- Sanders-like in physique, Ray Lewis-like in mindset. Rice has 167 rushes for 821 yards and six touchdowns this season, plus 61 catches for 582 yards and a touchdown.

Now veteran Willis McGahee, in his third season with Baltimore, is the complement to Rice.

"He gives us all confidence. He has a knack for making big plays ... He is a special player for us."
-- Ravens QB Joe Flacco on Rice
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin offered this fresh perspective on Rice: "The guy, he's top 10 in the league in rushing, top 10 in the league in receiving -- he's their leading receiver. He's a quality player. It [Baltimore's offense] goes through him. We had a great deal of respect for him in preparation for this game and he got us at critical times anyway. Hat's off to him.''

You should have seen the smile on Rice's face when he was read those words. You should have seen the sparkle in his eyes when he heard them.

Especially the notion that "it goes through him.''

This 2008 second-round pick, the 55th player chosen overall, helped his team compile the most total yards gained (393) and the most yards rushing gained (132) against the Steelers this season. He won against the Steelers for the first time in four tries, against a defense that entered ranked No.1 in both total defense and in rushing defense. He helped improve Baltimore's playoff chances, as the Ravens matched the Steelers record at 6-5.

"We respect the Steelers and we want to build the type of legacy that they have right here,'' Rice said. "So, to hear that type of respect coming from their coach humbles me.''

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco entered the league with Rice in 2008. The two connected on that critical fourth-day play that gave the Ravens their chance at victory.

Flacco has come to expect the balance, the quickness, the elusive moves in space that Rice brings to the table.

Rice said it was his failure to pick up a blitz package early in the fourth quarter that resulted in a strip-sack of Flacco -- a play that led to a Pittsburgh touchdown and a 17-14 Pittsburgh lead. Rice added, "I could have cost us the game. I was so happy when they called my number on fourth down. It gave me a chance to make up for my mistake. I wanted the chance to get my confidence and the team's confidence in me back to where it should be.''

It never wavered, Flacco said.

"Those kinds of things happen in games, but a guy like Ray will give you more good than bad,'' Flacco said. "We've got to do that, go back to him. He gives us all confidence. He has a knack for making big plays and getting extra yards when the play seems over. He is a special player for us.''

All of the nine NFL running backs who have rushed for more yards than Rice this season have several more carries than he does. The Ravens are spreading him across the offense, in usage and in design.

Here is another thing about Rice that the Ravens absolutely love: In 274 NFL rushing attempts, he has lost only one fumble.

His coach, John Harbaugh, said, simply, "Ray Rice is a player.''

Ray Lewis said of the Ravens using Rice on that fourth-down play: "We have one of the most electric young weapons on offense in the game in Ray Rice. I've just never seen anybody that can do things like that with the football. When you've got that type of weapon, use it.''

Rice hears all these things and remembers when the whispers were much different once. He was considered a potential third-down weapon entering the league. But now he plays on any and every down and is willing to go the distance.

"I feed off Ray Lewis,'' Rice said. "He talks to me quite often about not playing a game or a season, but leaving a legacy behind me. I think we are beginning to feed off each other. I think we're all playing here in Baltimore to leave some kind of legacy. I'm always trying to prepare myself for what's next.''
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