OWINGS MILLS — Ray Rice sized up the hulking linebackers positioned across the line of scrimmage, and the Baltimore Ravens’ running back had to smile as he accelerated into his pattern.
It’s a simple route, really.
Rice drifts out of the backfield, presents himself as a target and then his elusiveness and instincts take over.
The checkdown pass is emerging as a dangerous weapon in the Ravens’ arsenal because of Rice’s ability to dodge tackles and pick up extra yardage in the open field after the catch. During the Ravens’ 17-13 victory Saturday night over the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium., Rice caught a game-high eight passes for 67 yards out of the backfield.
It was a game filled with athletic mismatches created by Rice.
“Yeah, I like my chances on linebackers,” Rice said afterward. “I feel as if I go against the greatest linebackers, if not the greatest linebacker to ever play the game, every day in practice. If I beat [All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis] a few times, I feel like anybody else I go against — I’m not downing anybody — but I feel like my confidence level against anyone one-on-one, I can make miss.”
For Rice, that statement isn’t mere bravado.
It’s the truth.
“He’s quick and he’s really hard to tackle,” offensive tackle Jared Gaither said. “He displayed that.”
With the football directed toward him nine times, Rice connected with quarterback Joe Flacco on all but one of those attempts for completions while averaging 8.4 yards per reception.
“He’s a little guy so he can get in there, and he has good balance,” Flacco said. “I just get him the ball in space and you never know what’s going to happen.”
In the second quarter, Flacco hit Rice with a short pass to his right that Rice transformed into a 15-yard gain. Two plays later, his catch over the middle turned into a 14-yard reception. His balance and change of direction were particularly impressive.
Former Pro Bowl running back Willis McGahee, Rice’s primary backup, wound up capping the 13-play, 90-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
“You put the ball in Ray’s hands and you know he’s good for six yards or better catching the ball out of the backfield,” McGahee said. “You know he’s going to give it to you.”
A year ago as a rookie, the former Rutgers star led the Ravens’ running backs with 33 receptions for 273 yards while finishing third on the team in rushing with 454 yards.
Rice wasn’t a particularly experienced receiver when he arrived at Baltimore, catching 37 career passes at Rutgers in three seasons before declaring for the draft as a junior.
“I could count on my hand how many screens I ran at Rutgers,” said Rice, who rushed for 4,926 career yards and scored 49 touchdowns to set the Scarlet Knights’ all-time records.
With the Ravens, though, catching screens and flares out of the backfield is rapidly becoming a big part of his job responsibilities. And Rice is relishing the opportunity to embarrass a few linebackers on pass routes.
“Especially against a Cover 2 defense, you know you’re going to have one guy to beat for me,” Rice said. “It just felt good as a running back to catch the ball, make one guy miss and get as many yards as you can.”