OWINGS MILLS – Ray Rice went into motion smoothly Sunday night, lining up with confidence as a slot receiver across the line of scrimmage from Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior.
Despite his considerable athleticism, Farrior never had a chance of matching Rice’s acceleration and sudden moves.
And Rice took full advantage of the mismatch as he ripped off a 44-yard reception where he dashed and spun past several defenders to set up the game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter of the Baltimore Ravens’ 20-17 overtime win over the reigning Super Bowl champions.
For Rice, it was a testament to how far he has advanced as a receiving threat out of the backfield.
No NFL running back has caught as many passes for as many yards this season as Rice, who has generated a career-high 61 receptions for 582 yards. He’s 11 catches ahead of Arizona Cardinals running back Tim Hightower.
"I consider myself as an all-around offensive back," Rice said. "I can catch out of the backfield. Everything I’m doing, they try to get me in open space and let me do my thing.
"That’s my thing. I don’t care how I get it. I just want to get it done and make things happen."
Rice’s development into a potent checkdown threat for the Ravens follows a fairly limited background as a receiver as a consensus All-American runner at Rutgers who thrived between the tackles.
Before declaring early for the NFL draft after his junior year, Rice caught a career-high 25 passes for 239 yards and one touchdown. As a freshman and a sophomore, the 5-foot-8, 205-pounder had combined for just a dozen receptions for 95 yards.
The Ravens, though, were confident in Rice’s ability to catch the football. And they had the benefit of some inside information about his hands since offensive assistant Craig Ver Steeg had been Rice’s running backs coach at Rutgers.
"Ray is a quick guy, shifty, and he has good hands," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "So anytime you can give him the ball and space, it’s going to be a benefit for your offense. We just put Ray in motion, and he beat the guy across the face.
“I just had to make sure I just trusted that the underneath guys took the rest of the coverage and put the ball right in Ray’s chest. He did a great job of not only getting open, but getting the extra yards after the catch."
Rice leads the Ravens in receptions as well as rushing yards with 821 yards on the ground for six touchdowns.
As an all-purpose runner with an average of 127.5 yards from scrimmage per contest, Rice only trails Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson (153.6 yards).
For the season, Rice has 1,403 all-purpose yards. He’s is on pace to finish the season with 2,040 all-purpose yards, including 1,194 rushing yards.
"Ray’s the man," said veteran running back Willis McGahee, whom Rice supplanted as the starter heading into this season.
Rice ranks 10th in the league in rushing yards.
Against the Steelers, Rice piled up 155 yards of total offense with 88 rushing yards and 67 receiving yards on seven receptions.
It was his eighth consecutive game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage. Rice is now tied with St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson with nine of those games for the season
"Ray Rice is a player," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Ray Rice had a tremendous game."
Rice’s clutch reception and run-after-the-catch has been constantly replayed on highlight reels all week.
In Rice’s opinion, it was a way to redeem himself.
Rice said he missed a block on Flacco’s fumble on a hit by linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
"That was a way to get my confidence back," Rice said. "I like to take ownership for what I do on this team, and on the sack-fumble, that was my fault. For Cam Cameron and John Harbaugh to call my number again, it was a play designed for me to win.
"That play was me on James Farrior. It was either you’ve got me or you don’t. For them to call my number in that situation, it shows the confidence they have in me as a player. And I couldn’t be more proud of myself and proud of Joe and our offensive line for just being there for me during that time."
Plus, his teammates had a lot of confidence in Rice’s ability to get the job done in a critical situation.
"Let’s ride," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We have one of the most electric young weapons on offense in the game in Ray Rice.
"I’ve just never seen anybody that can do things like that with the football. When you’ve got that type of weapon, use it."
NOTES: Cornerback Fabian Washington indicated on his Twitter account that he was undergoing surgery Tuesday to repair his torn anterior cruciate ligament. … The Ravens have updated their depth chart and now list rookie Lardarius Webb as a starting cornerback and Marshal Yanda as their starting right offensive guard. … Former Ravens kickers Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano tried out for the New York Giants as well as Mike Nugent and Sam Swank.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.