The fans and the media have not been bashful about blaming Ray Rice for the Ravens run struggles this year. Rice has 549 Rush Yards to his name (27th of 49 HBs) and a yards-per-carry average that has finally eclipsed the 3.0 mark for the season after the win over the Vikings. Rice claims he has no lingering injury concerns after missing a start in Week 3, so how could his YPC average have dropped from 4.4 last season to barely 3.0 this season? I plugged in the tape from the Vikings
blizzard game to find out.
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There no question that the blocking in front of Ray Rice has curtailed his previous ability of getting to the second level and breaking loose. I have looked at the blocking in front of Rice from a schematic perspective many times this season and still maintain that a Power/Man blocking scheme is better a fit for all involved. That said, Rice is not without blame.
Rice has a tendency to look for cut-back lanes before the play-side hole forms/evolves. This propensity is not a poor plan if the play is schemed for it, but Rice too often looks back-side before pressing the play-side hole. Additionally, Rice does not seem to have the cutting ability to press hard to the outside and break back to an inside hole. He is a step slow in cutting and therefore appears that he’s dancing or being indecisive. We have seen Rice have success cutting back and forth behind blockers throughout his tenure with the Ravens and this diminished ability may be indicative of his overall health (within the season and his career).
Rice clearly has deficiencies that fans are not used to seeing but they are exacerbated by the blocking in front of him. When Rice is stretching runs toward the outside, he is often running behind an Ed Dickson block. Dickson’s 255lb frame cannot handle 4-3 DEs or 3-4 OLBs and his assignments often have their hands firmly in his chest, controlling him via leverage. With Rice running behind Dickson, cutting to either side of his block is the wrong decision as Dickson can be shed with ease.
These outlined characteristics are not the only ones hampering the Ravens rush game:
Inside Zone Weak
The Ravens have been running their offense primarily out of shotgun over the past few weeks. The goal is to rush against the opponent’s Nickel package in order to help the offensive line up front. Here the Ravens are running Inside Zone Weak where the primary rushing lane should be the B-gap.
The most important responsibility should be handled by LG A.Q. Shipley. He is tasked with blocking down on the 1-Technique until C Gradkowski can handle the 1-Tech alone, at which point Shipley will scoop up to the second level and block the WILL linebacker. It is crucial to get the 1-Tech under control because he can blow up the play-side and force everything to the back-side with a bit of leverage over the Center.
In this Image, it appears that Shipley accomplished his goal. Gradkowski is walling off the 1-Tech to the back-side and Shipley is reaching for a linebacker. The alley (in black) seems huge. Another glance at this image shows Gradkowski being pushed back further than the other O-Lineman. Gradkowski’s body is being pushed into Rice’s running lane so Rice looks to bounce it to the back-side.
As Rice’s contrail suggests, he abandoned the play-side path far too early. At this current point, Gradkowski regained leverage on the 1-Tech and the play-side hole is gaping. Instead, Rice cuts to the back-side into Ed Dickson’s block. Scroll back to the first Image and notice how far Dickson has been pushed inside (part of this is scheme, but Dickson was handled throughout the play and never had a chance to anchor down). Cutting back into Dickson’s block AND an alley Safety (far right) seems like the poor option.
The result is no gain.
For those who care to look back at the film, this play occurred at 4Q 12:41. And for those who are (correctly) skeptical about using one play to describe a trend, examine 1Q 13:00 from this game as well.
The Ravens use “Power O” blocking (back-side guard Lead) in front of Rice on this play. The priority for the offensive line is to drive back 3-Tech Sharrif Floyd via double team. This block is important because it creates movement at the point-of-attack, it cuts down the angle of pulling-guard Yanda, and it allows Rice to read the second level of the defense.
Monroe and Shipley create a ton of movement on Floyd. Shipley won’t look to scoop to the second level until they have bulldozed Floyd. Pulling-guard Yanda hugs the double-team to get to the second level. Rice could trip on this shoelaces at the line-of-scrimmage and still pick up yards.
TE Ed Dickson has been pushed toward the inside (again look at his position in Image 3 relative to Image 1). This forces Rice toward the back-side but with a massive opening, Rice makes the right decision.
LG Shipley is just coming off his combo-block and walls off his new assignment (black circle) to the back-side.
Rice works off Shipley’s leverage and breaks up-field. With fantastic blocking in front of him, Rice looks like the Rice of old. Rice has lost his formerly elite cutting ability but he can still be a very effective (and elusive) runner when his options are clearly defined.
The big push by Monroe and Shipley along with the lead block of Marshal Yanda exemplify my continued insistence that the Ravens use more Power/Man blocking to open up holes for Rice. On top of better blocking, the scheme creates more clearly defined holes feed into Rice’s straight-ahead ability.
In the Passing Game
At the start of the Ravens 1-Minute drill to end the first half, Baltimore ran a play that accentuates Rice’s strengths:
Each of the four receivers run vertical routes to push off their defenders. This left Ray Rice underneath to run a designed Option route where he breaks to the inside or outside given the leverage of the coverage defender. His defender is 239lb MLB Audie Cole. A huge mismatch.
After a stutter to his right, Rice breaks left. Flacco reads LB Cole along with Rice and throws to Rice who has room underneath of the other man-coverage defenders.
Although situational awareness should be standard in the NFL, not all players show it on every play. Rice picks ups the first down and trots out of bounds to stop the clock while the Ravens are trying to march down the field. An alert play ties up a well-called and well-executed play nicely.
Statistics aside, Ray Rice is not playing his best football. The blocking in front of him deserves a lot of blame. There were several times throughout this game where blockers were blown backwards into Rice’s intended lane forcing Rice to freelance. Freelancing is fine at the linebacker level, to make someone miss. But having to avoid tacklers in the backfield cannot breed a consistent running attack.
Through Rice’s struggles, I can say I’m impressed with his overall impact on the passing game. He is a fantastic check-down receiver but he was used in other ways as well. Rice’s speed was used to the team’s advantage as an Option route runner (above) and he often sprinted into the flat at the snap of the ball. This created separation from him and his linebacker assignment in order to turn the corner more effectively.
Lastly, Rice has greatly improved in pass protection. Rice usually blocks blitzing linebackers from the inside-out or chips a Defensive End on the way into his route. He has shown the ability to do both very well. Rice’s improvement in pass protection has not gone unnoticed from opponents either. Opposing linebackers have started to feign blitz to keep Rice inside in protection and slow him down if he eventually leaks out as a check-down option.
The Lions are a defense built on their defensive line up front. Nick Fairley, Ndomukong Suh, and Ziggy Ansah are fantastic at getting up-field at the snap. Penetration has minimized the Ravens rushing effectiveness throughout the season. If the Ravens are to be successful on the ground, they will need to use Traps, Whams, and Bootlegs along with Screens and Options to keep the Detroit defensive front from attacking. Rice will be a huge factor on Monday Night, but I think his greatest contribution will be in the pass game.