Baltimore’s Ray Rice has been feasting on the Cincinnati Bengals since he entered the league, but the only people the sixth-year running back is tormenting this year are his fantasy owners.
Rice’s drop in production has been staggering and has no doubt contributed to the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens being 3-5 at the midway point and in dire need of going on a substantial run just to get back in the playoff race.
Rice has rushed for 259 yards and three touchdowns in seven games after averaging 1,266.5 yards and 8.3 TDs the last four years.
And it’s not just the cumulative numbers that have fallen off. He’s averaging 2.7 yards per carry after gaining 4.5 per rush in his first five seasons. Only once this year has Rice topped 3.0 per carry, and that was when he ran five times for 17 yards (3.4) against Buffalo in Week 4.
But he bristled at the notion that he has lost a step.
“Everybody has these situations,” Rice told Baltimore reporters earlier this week. “A down year is not going to make or break me as a person. I’ve been through a lot worse than averaging what I’m averaging in carries. I got broad shoulders. I’ll take it.”
Part of the problem has been a hip flexor strain Rice suffered in Week 2, forcing him to miss one game. But as much of a struggle as the season has been for Rice, the Bengals aren’t just going to assume it will continue Sunday.
History suggests they should expect the opposite. In 10 career games against Cincinnati, Rice has nine touchdowns while averaging 4.5 yards per carry to go along with 36 catches for 300 yards.
But Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said those numbers are unique to his unit.
“I think he’s been a thorn in a lot of people’s side,” Zimmer said. “He’s got great balance, and he’s a tough guy, physical. He’s a hell of a back. He’s got great quickness and acceleration and vision.
“I don’t know about what they’ve done or haven’t done (this year),” he added. “I just know they’ve got very good personnel, so we’ll have a full day’s work.”
But the personnel issue only adds to Rice’s mysterious decline. The Ravens have a two-time Pro Bowler in Marshal Yanda at right guard and a pair of first-round picks at tackle in Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe. And Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco is still the quarterback.
“We’re working on it, seeing what we can do to make it better,” Flacco said of the Ravens run game that ranks 29th of 32 NFL teams at 71.6 yards per game. “It’s one of those things that isn’t going right now. I don’t know if surprise is the right word, but we’re definitely used to being able to get it going a little bit and we haven’t been able to do so. We have to make sure we continue to do all we can to make that part of the game better.”
Rice’s history and the current state of the Cincinnati defense could be a problematic combination for the Bengals. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is out for the year, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga won’t play either and his backup, Michael Boley, hasn’t practiced all week with a hamstring injury.
A soft spot in the middle of the defense might be all it takes for Rice to squirt into the second level and rip off runs with which the Bengals are all too familiar.
Rice had touchdown runs of 70 and 51 yards in the 2011 season finale and a run of 59 yards when the teams met earlier in the year. In 2010 he had a 30-yarder. And in 2009, when the Bengals had the fourth-ranked defense in the league and swept the division, Rice had a 48-yard TD reception, a 35-yard catch-and-run and a 21-yard rush.
“I still believe we’ll get the run game going,” Rice said. “We have the guys. It’s never been an effort thing. We’ve just seen some pretty good fronts, and I’ve battled through some stuff this year. I’m just going to go out there and try to be the best Ray Rice I can be for the second half of the season.”
Cincinnati Bengals (6-3) at Baltimore Ravens (3-5), 1 p.m., Ch. 7, 12, 700-AM, 1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM