OWINGS MILLS — Minutes before Ray Rice strolled through the locker room without limping despite a bruised right knee, Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee offered a prediction on the Pro Bowl running back’s status.
Although team officials stood in front of Rice and prevented him from conducting interviews, McGahee spoke authoritatively when asked if Rice will play Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Ray’s a competitor, so I doubt he’s going to sit this game out. That’s the kind of person that he is,” McGahee said. “I don’t know what’s going on with him, but as far as I know, he was in the meetings with us. So why wouldn’t he?”
Rice didn’t practice Wednesday and had a sleeve around his knee.
If Rice is sidelined or limited, McGahee could emerge as an important factor in Sunday’s pivotal AFC North showdown.
“I’m pretty sure I’m up for the challenge,” said McGahee, a former Pro Bowl runner. “If my number is called, I’ll step up to the plate.”
McGahee last started for Baltimore on Oct. 4, 2009 against the New England Patriots.
In the AFC championship game two years ago, he rushed for 60 yards and two touchdowns before being knocked unconscious on a brutal hit by Steelers safety Ryan Clark.
Last season, McGahee scored 14 touchdowns despite only carrying the football 109 times with 15 receptions.
“I look at it as, let the young guy go out there and run around and get all the yards,” McGahee said. “And when it comes down to touchdown time, that’s when I come in. I’m content with that.”
McGahee has rushed for 2,459 yards and 27 touchdowns since joining the Ravens, whose decision not to trade him is looking prescient now despite his $3.6 million salary.
McGahee hasn’t been utilized heavily this season, rushing for 37 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries with 29 yards coming Sunday when Rice banged up his knee against the Cleveland Browns on a four-yard reception in the fourth quarter.
McGahee is only averaging 2.3 yards per carry, but has three 1,000-yard rushing seasons and has gained 5,824 career yards with 51 touchdowns.
The Ravens could also involve Pro Bowl fullback Le’Ron McClain, who once rushed for 902 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I hope Ray plays, I hope he can start and do the whole game,” McClain said. “If he doesn’t, Willis is ready to step his game up and become the starter and do his thing.”
Rice was one of only two running backs to pile up over 2,000 yards from scrimmage last season, joining Tennessee Titans star Chris Johnson.
“Ray is a great talent, but we have three pretty good running backs with Ray, Le’Ron and Willis,” center Matt Birk said. “All three have proven they can be more than effective. As far as blocked goes, you don’t even realize who’s in there.”
The Ravens don’t plan on dramatically altering their blocking schemes based on Rice’s presence or lack thereof.
“We have our aiming points of what we’re trying to do,” offensive tackle Marshall Yanda said. “It’s tailored to the play, and they make their reads or cuts off that.”
The Steelers are anticipating that Rice will play and won’t be fooled by any rumors about his condition.
“We’re just going to prepare with the assumption that this guy’s going to play,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told Baltimore reporters during a conference call. “I think that’s the prudent approach to take.”
As far as the Steelers are concerned, the Ravens’ hard-nosed style won’t change if Rice is in the game or not.
The Ravens have rushed for 267 yards on 85 carries. They ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing last season, but are down to 23rd this year.
The Steelers’ run defense is ranked third overall, allowing just 59.7 yards per contest.
“In my opinion, their personality doesn’t change very much in terms of how they attack us,” Tomlin said. “That’s been my experience in competing with those guys. Whether it’s McClain as their featured running back, which we’ve seen, or it’s McGahee or it’s Ray Rice, they have a form and fashion in terms of how they attack us. Really, that’s what we’re preparing for.”
McGahee smiled when asked if he knows he’s going to start.
And he joked with reporters as cameras pointed toward him when he walked onto the practice field.
The Ravens will likely attempt to keep Rice’s status a secret up until shortly before kickoff.
Depending on how his knee progresses, he could be a game-time decision.