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Eisenberg Notebook: More Rice Diet, Please

Posted Oct 8, 2013

Take a second look at the AFC North. Dolphins run game gave up vs. Ravens. Flacco's greatness.

Let’s call it the Rice Diet – a steady stream of touches for the Pro Bowl running back. 

The Ravens have lived on it for years, but like a lot of diets, it can be difficult to maintain. I can think of a handful of reasons why the Ravens could go in another direction and lessen his load in 2013. He’s only averaging 2.9 yards per carry through five games. His backup, Bernard Pierce, has shown more explosiveness. The offensive line isn’t consistently opening holes for either of them. Rice has lost a pair of fumbles. 

But I don’t care about any of that. It wasn’t a coincidence that Rice had 27 carries and a season-high 33 touches Sunday and the Ravens won in Miami. Good things happen to the Ravens when Rice gets the ball. 

The Rice Diet? More, please. 

I can think of just as many reasons why it makes perfect sense for the Ravens in 2013, starting with these startling statistics that ESPN’s Jamison Hensley unearthed: The Ravens have won 20 straight games when Rice gets at least 20 touches, and they’re 38-6 when he gets at least 15 carries. 

Notice that they haven’t won all those games when he gains a certain amount of yardage; just when he touches the ball often enough. Why? When Rice totes it steadily, the rest of the offense benefits, regardless of how he fares. Joe Flacco’s play-action fakes become much more effective. The opponent’s defensive interior gets worn down. Everyone wins. 

And usually, the more you give Rice the ball, the better your chances of seeing him break a big play. 

That hasn’t happened yet this year. Rice’s numbers are down so far, largely because of a hip injury that set him back. I say give it time and keep giving him the ball. The run blocking should tighten up as the season unfolds. Rice is still a load-carrier, the foundation from which all else sprouts.

No, the Ravens don’t need to go back to their ground-and-pound days. With Flacco in his prime, their passing game is so productive that it needs the ball, too. The goal is balance, with Rice getting a healthy amount of touches. As the numbers indicate, it pays off almost every time. 

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The AFC North became the butt of jokes after all four teams opened 2013 with defeats. Did you hear about the tough-guy division that wasn’t so tough? Heading into Week 5, it was one of only two divisions that didn’t have a team with a winning record, the NFC East being the other. 

But, ahem, you might want to look again. 

In the wake of a successful Week 5, the AFC North is now one of only two divisions with three teams over .500. The Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are all 3-2 after beating AFC East opponents. 

Even with the Pittsburgh Steelers collapsing in 2013, the tough-guy division might still be tough after all. 

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Like the Ravens the week before in Buffalo, the Dolphins gave up on their running game Sunday. 

As you may recall, the Ravens called 31 straight passes in Buffalo in the second half. When the Dolphins got nowhere on the ground early Sunday, they called passes on their last 15 snaps and 23 of their last 25. 

I understood why the Ravens did it in Buffalo: their backs never had anything resembling a hole to run through. Likewise, I couldn’t fault Miami Sunday. The Ravens stoned them cold. 

Both teams still almost passed their way to victory. Flacco nearly brought the Ravens back in Buffalo until five interceptions did him in, and Miami came back on the Ravens behind quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

But both teams ended up losing, and it’s probably not a coincidence. 

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In our fantasy-dominated football world, numbers tend to drive the debate about who is great. But sometimes, numbers just don’t tell the story. 

It was nice to hear Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh praise Flacco for taking a beating from pass rushers Sunday but still standing in and making enough plays to win – a quality for which there is no metric. 

“That’s part of Joe’s [Flacco] greatness,” Harbaugh said. “That’s a part of what makes Joe who he is. You look around the league, and you’ll see a lot of quarterbacks not doing those things, not standing in there the way he stands in there. He’s special that way. We don’t win that game without him, without his willingness to stand in there and make those throws.” 

What he said.


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