OWINGS MILLS – Ray Rice is a moving target, darting away from linebackers with his elusive, low-slung frame.
In the span of one year, Rice has become the hunted one.
The Baltimore Ravens’ muscular Pro Bowl running back is aware that he’s no longer a secret in NFL circles.
As the Ravens prepare for Monday night’s season opener against the New York Jets, Rice has emerged as a focal point for opposing defenses to strategize against.
“I know that, and I respect that so much,” Rice said. “That started happening at the end of last season where people were game-planning to try to shut me down. I took it as a challenge last season, and I take it as an even bigger challenge this year. I know that I’m a guy that defenses pay attention to, and that’s all about respect. I’m not hiding from anybody.”
Plotting to stop Rice is a focus for any smart defense, even the reigning top-ranked defense in the league from last season.
Rice rushed for 1,339 yards last season, manufacturing an additional 780 yards on 78 receptions. With 2,041 all-purpose yards, Rice ranked second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage behind Tennessee Titans star Chris Johnson.
Now, the 5-foot-8, 212-pounder is even stronger having spent the majority of the offseason in the weight room.
Through diligence with heavy metal, Rice now bench presses 405 pounds and squats over 500 pounds. He has bulked up significantly while maintaining his trademark shiftiness and breakaway speed.
“Everything starts with Ray Rice,” Jets linebacker Bart Scott said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters.
“He’s a dual threat running the ball and also catching the ball. We’ve got to try to bottle him up and make him one-dimensional and try to set our offense up with a short field so they don’t have to try to march down the field on that defense.”
Rice has been widely labeled as a strong AFC Offensive Player of the Year candidate.
The diminutive runner’s biceps are softball-sized. His legs are pumped with muscles like a car’s pistons.
“The weight room has been good to me,” Rice said. “I love to work hard. Hard work pays off, and it’s not just about looking a certain way. It’s about being able to stiff-arm somebody or finish off a block. It’s about making yourself a weapon out there.”
Johnson rushed for 2,066 yards last season and has set a goal of gaining 2,500 this year, which would shatter the NFL single-season rushing mark.
Does Rice envision a 2,000-yard campaign in his future like Johnson?
“Yeah, he put it out there,” Rice said. “I’m a guy that I feel like I do more than run the ball, 2,000 rushing yards, I’ve done that in college. I’m not saying that can’t happen. What I’m saying is that I think my value is more than just running the ball.
“I always want to win first. I say anything over 2,000 all-purpose yards will put me where I want to be. I don’t want to be just a guy that flew under the radar. If I fall short and we’re winning games, then that’s great. I just want to be a guy who helps the team win.”
Toward that goal, the Ravens preserved Rice during the preseason for games that actually count.
Rice only had 13 touches during essentially two preseason games as he barely played in the first preseason game and was rested during the preseason finale.
He rushed eight times for 30 yards. He registered five receptions for 56 yards.
Now, Rice enters the Jets game with fresh legs.
"I feel great," he said. "It’s the best I’ve ever felt. Our training camp was physical. It felt good to get tackled during training camp by our guys.
“You don’t necessarily want to be tackled by another team, but I feel fresh going into this game. It feels great to know that you got your workload in camp, but now you’re ready to play the regular season."
This is a special game for the former Rutgers star.
The native of New Rochelle, N.Y., requested 35 to 40 tickets for friends and family for this game at the new Meadowlands stadium.
"It’s a new stadium, my family is up there and I’m trying to get my high school coaches to come," Rice said. "I’m trying to make it a special event."
The Jets had the NFL’s top-ranked defense last season and are particularly stout against the run.
The front seven is headlined by massive nose guard Kris Jenkins and inside linebackers David Harris and Scott.
"We both play that physical game," Rice said. "It’s going to be who out-executes each other. I don’t think it’s going to be a first-quarter knockout. I want the game to go four quarters. That way, our true testament and will, will come out."
Unconcerned about Rice being rusty, the Ravens believe that he’s primed for another outstanding season.
"Hopefully, he’ll come out ready to go," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "You know what Ray can do, so I expect him to come out and do all that, have some good carries, be effective first in the pass game."