If the Ravens running game is to have any success in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, they’ll have to avoid a huge mass in the middle of the Patriots defensive line – a mass that goes by the name of Vince Wilfork.
“The thing that’s great about him is the speed,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said on Wednesday. “Some people think that because of his size, he isn’t going to be able to move as fast. He moves as quick as any defensive lineman in the league.”
It’s hard to imagine that someone 6′-2″, who shows every bit of his 325-pound frame in his stomach, could be fast, but that’s the deceptive thing about Wilfork. For Rice to have success on the ground Sunday, he’ll have to run into lanes he is less familiar with to avoid Wilfork.
I have often heard fans question why Rice doesn’t run outside of the tackles more often. I was with Rice two weeks ago when he shared a story of why he’s more of a “North/South” runner versus “East/West” like C.J. Spiller of the Buffalo Bills.
Rice will usually tell this story when people ask him who has ever hit him the hardest in his life – that answer has always been teammate and linebacker Ray Lewis.
During Rice’s rookie training camp in Baltimore, he was handed the ball and found himself faces with a choice:
A.) Run through Ray Lewis
B.) Run around Ray Lewis
Rice – as most would – decided on option B, and Lewis made him pay. Rice received the ball and ran immediately towards the sidelines as Lewis followed him. Lewis didn’t hit him head on but he wrapped him up and drove him so hard into the ground Rice fell on the football and immediately had the wind knocked out of him. As he regained his ability to breathe, Lewis helped Rice from the ground and began to critique the play.
“Boy, you ran (turns his head to the sidelines looking for the down marker) 17 yards to gain one yard!” Lewis said. Lewis suggested that Rice should run “North/South,” and from that point forward that’s been exactly what #27 does.
However, to avoid Wilfork, Rice may have to become more of a hybrid and turn into a “Northeast/Southwest” runner and utilize his tackles more than his guards, as the inside guys will be preoccupied with Wilfork.
With the recent shifting of the offensive line and insertion of Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, it’s hard to tell by just looking at the numbers if Rice’s success running through certain gaps is more a function of personnel or of scheme. This is something the Ravens have clearly studied to combat Wilfork but it’s worth sharing more insight to Rice’s runs.
(following stats c/o ProFootballFocus)
Rice had about even success running between the guard and tackles on both the left and right side. Between left guard (LG) and left tackle (LT), Rice carried 45 times for 216 yards (4.8YPC). Between RG + RT, Rice carried 39 times for 191 yards (4.9YPC).
With the latest offensive line configuration, Rice has upgraded personnel by each of the remaining three positions aside from Marshal Yanda who has already been named to the Pro Bowl. Given these stats are from the majority of the regular season, Rice should expect to be able to build on more success than the near five-yards per carry mark he’s already averaging.
When Rice does have to cut outside of his tackle, running off-tackle left (Michael Oher’s side for most of the season) was the most successful. Off of LT, Rice carried 25 times for 157 yards (6.3YPC) versus off of RT (Kelechi Osemele for most of the season) where he had 26 attempts but only rushed for 125 yards (4.8YPC).
In total, Rice had more success running outside of the tackles (5.5YPC ) than he did going between his guard and tackle (4.8YPC).
There is another major difference in Rice’s production when a tight end is brought in to help block on either side of the offensive line. During most of the season, with the aggressive Osemele at RT, the combination of K.O. and a TE helped Rice to 98 yards on 16 carries (6.1 YPC). When going off LT with the TE helping, Rice had 103 yards on 28 carries (3.8 YPC).
Had the Ravens stuck with the same offensive line configuration all season, it would be easier to dissect their success based on Rice’s runs from a specific position. Given that there has been such a shift in personnel, here is a synopsis of the findings:
- Running between RG+RT vs. LG+LT, Rice had roughly the same success running between the guard and tackle regardless of which side he runs to.
- Running outside LT or RT without TE help, Rice had more success running off of LT, but most of that came with Oher on that side of the line. Oher is a better run blocker than McKinnie so it would seem that Rice should have more success following Oher, this time to the right side.
- Running off LT + TE vs. RT + TE, when Osemele was playing RT, Rice had 2+ YPC greater success running off his side with help from a TE than to the left side with a TE. The stats would show that Oher does fine blocking by himself in the run whereas he isn’t as effective with help on his side.
Rice ended his responses about the Patriots on Wednesday by saying, “They are no walk-in-the-park defense, you have to go out there and execute at a high level.”
In last year’s AFC Championship Game, Rice averaged just 3.2 yards per carry on 21 carries, as Wilfork pushed the Ravens’ interior linemen around all afternoon. In Week 3 though, Rice managed a whopping 5.1 yards per carry.
For Rice to execute at a high level Sunday – which will be key to keeping Tom Brady and the Pats offense on the sideline – he’ll likely have to run outside his tackles, something he’s shown that he’s not quite as comfortable with as he is running through the middle of his offensive line.