Willis McGahee cut toward his right before aggressively bouncing outside to his left, switching the football effortlessly to his left arm while he used his right hand to stiff-arm a defender to the ground.
It was a flash of movement and force unseen by the Baltimore Ravens’ former Pro Bowl runner in some time.
For McGahee, his impressive 16-yard run during a 23-0 preseason victory Thursday night over the Washington Redskins served notice that he’s not going to concede the starting running back job to Ray Rice.
And Rice, whose darting 34-yard reception out of the backfield was one of the Ravens’ top offensive highlights, didn’t overshadow McGahee.
If anything, they complemented one another well enough to justify a growing confidence that they could form a dangerous tandem with Pro Bowl fullback Le’Ron McClain returning to a more traditional blocking role.
"When we’re both healthy, it’s going to be a great duo," Rice said. "It’s a great 1-2 punch. We’re both different players. We do different things. I’m catching, running and Willis does it all, too.
"Running backs have got to be able to do it all. You can’t be one-dimensional in this league. We’re two different backs, but what we bring to the game people have to respect."
Against the Redskins, McGahee averaged 6.5 yards per carry with 26 yards gained on four carries. Rice rushed for 22 yards on five carries for a 4.4 average, also catching three passes for 38 yards.
"I thought they ran hard," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You know they got the ball north and south."
A year ago, McGahee slumped to a career-low 671 rushing yards primarily due to deficiencies of health, attitude and conditioning.
McClain emerged as the Ravens’ leading rusher, hammering linebackers for a career-high 902 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
And Rice flashed his versatility and quickness as a rookie with the former Rutgers star gaining 454 yards on the ground and catching 33 passes for 273 yards.
Now, Rice is working to establish himself as the starter. McGahee is looking to reclaim his old Pro Bowl form.
And McClain is operating as an intimidating bodyguard for both backs while remaining capable of taking over as the featured runner in one-back sets or short-yardage situations.
""We know we can run on anybody, we’re constantly pushing," McGahee said. "Each one of us brings different things to the table. Ray is a slasher. Le’Ron is a bruiser, and I try to do both. Basically, we’re just trying to get the chemistry going on."
Based on the litmus tests of the first preseason game and how the backs have grinded out yards against the NFL’s second-ranked defense from a year ago during training camp, the chemistry experiment seems to be a successful one thus far.
Rice has become a more physical runner by bulking up in the weight room while retaining his agility.
And McGahee ran with more authority and elusiveness than he had shown during practice sessions where he has typically bulled in a straightforward manner for yardage.
After undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee during the offseason, he seems to be nearly 100 percent again.
"I tried to show my cutting skills," McGahee said. "In training camp, you have to run straight ahead. In games, you just have to go out there and be yourself."
Meanwhile, McGahee hasn’t bristled at coming off the bench.
"It’s cool, man," he said. "I’m here for whatever. If he starts, then I’ll be backing him up."
As a team Thursday, the Ravens rushed for 101 yards and one touchdown on 25 carries.
And the backs, including reserve Matthew Lawrence catching three passes for 38 yards while rushing for 36 yards on nine carries, combined for 10 receptions for 109 yard as they operated as safety-valve options.
"It’s very important," McGahee said. "When the quarterback has no one else to go to, we’re their last option. So, we’ve got to be there when the need us."
Former Philadelphia Eagles tight end L.J. Smith is accustomed to being around a strong running game having played with Brian Westbrook for several seasons. He believes that the Rice-McGahee grouping could be extremely productive.
"They can be a great tandem," Smith said. "There are no limits on those guys with their ability. They both have awesome games."
During 2008, Ravens’ offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s first season in Baltimore, the Ravens ranked fourth in the league in rushing with a 148.5 average per game. Collectively, Baltimore gained 2,376 rushing yards for a 4.0 average and 20 rushing touchdowns.
Could the Ravens ascend into the top rushing team in the league this year?
"We really don’t talk about all that, but it’s kind of an interesting stat," Rice said "They’ve got to game-plan for three running backs. You just can’t prepare for one of us. .. We’re very confident that we can move the ball. It’s a good feeling."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the20Annapolis Capital.