OWINGS MILLS – There isn’t much separation between Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew except for a long stretch of the Eastern seaboard, roughly an inch in height, a few pounds and slightly differing games.
Two of the most dynamic, versatile and shorter running backs in the league will be on opposing sidelines Monday night at EverBank Field when the Baltimore Ravens and Rice take on a Jacksonville Jaguars squad headlined by Jones-Drew.
Compact, powerful and shifty with muscular frames that offset their lack of height, Rice and Jones-Drew are two of the top all-purpose backs in the NFL.
"You sort of have a little battle, myself versus Jones-Drew," Rice said. "Let’s see who comes out as the better running back that day."
Both diminutive runners are difficult to locate behind their blockers.
Both bust through arm tackles with enough torque to dislocate linebackers’ shoulders.
And both are legitimate home run threats with deceptive acceleration and speed.
A Pro Bowl selection for the Jaguars each of the past two seasons, Jones-Drew is a former first-round draft pick from UCLA listed at 5-foot-7, 208 pounds. He has a somewhat bigger, stronger frame than Rice.
And Rice is a former Pro Bowl selection from Rutgers, a 5-foot-8, 212-pound former second-round selection.
The similarities are jarring.
"Absolutely," Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Their build is definitely the same. I think Jones-Drew might be a little heavier than Ray and things like that. I think out of the backfield Ray is a little more dynamic when it comes to spreading them out and getting in one-on-one matches.
"Jones-Drew is the exact same type of back, really shifty in the hole, really likes to hide behind those linemen and burst out the long run and things like that. He’s a good back."
Jones-Drew represents one of the few bright spots for the last-place Jaguars (1-5), ranking third in the NFL with 572 rushing yards and a 4.8 average per carry.
Rice has rushed for 398 yards while playing one less game than Jones-Drew.
And Rice has 12 more catches and 227 more receiving yards than his Jaguars counterpart.
In his sixth NFL season, Jones-Drew, 26, has piled up 5,820 career rushing yards and 56 touchdowns with 244 catches for 2,174 yards and seven touchdowns.
Two years younger than Jones-Drew and five games into his fourth NFL season, Rice isn’t quite as established or prolific a runner as Jones-Drew. He has totaled 3,411 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns with 195 receptions for 1,833 yards and four touchdowns.
"The only similarity is that they both are short in stature, but they’re both muscular guys," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. I think when you see a guy that’s not a tall player, sometimes they’re called small, but neither one of these guys plays small. They’re very muscular, they’re very active. Good vision, good balance, can run it, can catch, can block, can do it all."
The Ravens’ proud defense has shut down several running backs already this season, including Houston Texans reigning NFL rushing champion Arian Foster.
He was held to 49 rushing yards by Baltimore last week.
The Ravens rank third against the run in the NFL, allowing 76.6 rushing yards per contest.
However, they are extremely respectful of Jones-Drew.
"The big thing is we’ve got to gang-tackle this guy," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "We’ve got to limit his yards after contact. He breaks a ton of tackles. You put on the tape, and this guy is like a rolling ball of butcher knives. He’s scary. He runs over linebackers, he knocks guys out, he puts people to sleep.
"We’ve got to do a good job, as always, of setting the edge and not giving up the outside. He’s a downhill guy. He can bounce, jump, cut, spin. He can do everything, and we’ve got to get as many hats on as possible and hang on for dear life."
Jones-Drew is definitely short, but he’s not small.
Pagano even compared Jones-Drew running style to imposing New York Giants bruiser Brandon Jacobs, who’s seven inches taller and nearly 50 pounds heavier than the Jaguars’ star.
"He runs like Jacobs from the Giants, physically, but he’s slight in stature," Pagano said. "Sometimes, he looks like he’s two-and-a-half, three-feet tall behind all those big linemen and he’s hard to find. All of the sudden, there he is. He dents you with his Riddell right on yours and he puts you to sleep, but it’s hard to find him sometimes."
Another thing Jones-Drew and Rice have in common is friendship.
"I’m really close friends with him," Jones-Drew said. "He’s a good dude. It’s funny, he does more out of the backfield. It’s ridiculous, but Ray does a great job in their offense. He’s kind of similar to Matt Forte as well where they throw the ball out of the backfield to him. They find ways to get him the ball in creative ways."
Rice first began associating with Jones-Drew when they were teammates on the AFC Pro Bowl squad two years ago.
And they hung out at the NFL draft last spring.
"Maurice Jones-Drew is a guy that I instantly connected with just based off his whole style, his life story," Rice said. " We have seen each other around plenty. We know that off the field it’s a mutual respect, good buddies."
Both Rice and Jones-Drew have overcome adversity to achieve their NFL status.
Rice was raised by a single mother, Janet Rice, in New Rochelle, N.Y. after his father was killed when Rice was an infant by a bullet intended for someone else. And Rice lost his older cousin when he was in middle school.
And Jones-Drew’s beloved grandfather died while watching him play in the Rose Bowl.
The Pro Bowl runners have bonded over their unique style of play, thriving low to the ground with excellent body lean and balance.
"We were at the Pro Bowl together, it was a great time with him down there, knowing that our size plays to our advantage," Rice said. "It’s actually funny that we’re going down there playing against them on Monday night.
"When you look at the life story and you look at the game, wer are just two ‘undersized guys’ that have proven ourselves over and over that, not only are we great running backs, but we are here to stay and we are going to continue to try to be consistent backs in this league."
Always competitive and perhaps a tad sensitive when it comes to their lack of ideal height, Rice has already claimed one minor, personally significant victory over Jones-Drew.
"Standing next to him, he will tell you do that I do have him by an inch or so," Rice said. "So, I won that battle. He is a little thicker than me."