- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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The biggest difference between Rice this year and previous ones has been his ability to make defenders miss and break big plays. The Ravens need Rice to be the explosive playmaker they've come to expect, especially with the team's inexperience at the offensive skill positions. But, instead of making tacklers look silly like he did on that fourth down-and-29 in San Diego, he's typically going down after the first hit.
Rice has only broken two tackles this season, the fewest for any running back with over 50 carries, according to Pro Football Focus. In comparison, Reggie Bush has caused 16 missed tackles on just 11 more rush attempts. Even Ravens backup Bernard Pierce has broken 10 tackles this season.
Rice's 1.6 average yards after contact is only better than four starting running backs this season (Daryl Richardson, Willis McGahee, Lamar Miller and Chris Johnson). In each of his previous four seasons as the Ravens' featured back, Rice averaged 2.3 yards or more after contact.
This is why Rice has been unable to produce big plays. He's touched the ball 74 times, and his longest run has been 14 yards. His average yards per carry is 2.9, and his average yards per catch is 4.2. Last season, Rice had five 20-yard runs and six catches over 20 yards.
There were flashes of the old Rice in Miami, and it usually occurred around the goal line. On his first touchdown, he powered his way in between the tackles for a 2-yard score. On his second one, Rice saw the Dolphins' defense crashing inside and he made a sudden cut to the outside, which allowed him to walk in for the 3-yard touchdown.
After that first touchdown, Rice and coach John Harbaugh shared a laugh on the sideline.
"I was telling him, just being honest, you can never take away the value of a 3-yard run," Rice said. "That’s sometimes what we had to get and the value of it was you know what, it was what they were giving us. But to be able to let our offensive linemen line up and try to get after a few people, that felt pretty good. You know what, Jim (Caldwell, offensive coordinator) didn’t let his foot off the pedal. No matter how it looked, we were going to run the ball. That’s a good feeling.”
The main problem of the Ravens' running game, which ranks 27th in the NFL, has been the poor play of the offensive line. Baltimore's running backs are getting hit too many times behind the line and there have been no consistent holes. The lack of clear running lanes has led Rice and Pierce to slow up when approaching the line instead of accelerating through it.
Another factor has been Rice's hip injury. He got hurt in the fourth quarter of Week 2 and sat out the following week. But Rice wasn't producing long runs before the injury and he isn't using the injury as an excuse.
“It just felt good to have no setbacks with the injury I was coming off of," Rice said after the Dolphins game.
As I wrote Monday, it's a proven winning formula to get the ball in the hands of Rice. The Ravens are 23-3 when Rice has at least 25 touches, winning the last 20 times this has happened. But it just won't seem like old times until the old (and explosive) Rice returns.