*By Khalil Garriott, NFLPlayers.com
Some around the NFL might have been surprised by the performances of Baltimore Ravens rookies Ray Rice and Joe Flacco in Week 9. But those people certainly aren't part of the Ravens coaching staff, roster or front office.
"When they get drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, we expect them to play like that. Are we surprised? No," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said.
Rice, a former star running back at Rutgers, was particularly impressive in a 37-27 comeback road win over the hated Cleveland Browns last Sunday. Rushing for a career-high 154 yards on 21 carries (7.3 yards per carry), Rice played an integral part in his team's fifth win of the season, as he led the league in rushing for Week 9 and rightfully earned his turn in NFLPLAYERS.COM's Rookie Spotlight.
"The way we practice, I can't say that I was surprised," Rice said of his breakout performance. "I do a great job of studying and watching. When it is my turn, I'm ready. It surprises me with how many people are rallying behind you. Even if you make a bad play, they rally behind you.
"[Sunday] was a team win. I can say that I made a lot of plays, but the Browns have one of the best defensive lines that I have ever seen."
Baltimore's second pick in the April draft—Flacco was its first—set up a go-ahead, fourth-quarter Matt Stover field goal with a 60-yard run to Cleveland's 3-yard line. With the game's outcome still hanging in the balance, Rice burst through a hole created by his offensive line and raced toward the sideline for a big gain that helped the Ravens keep control of the contest.
The 60-yard jaunt was good for 7th-longest in team history and it was the longest run by a Raven since Jamal Lewis had a 75-yarder four years ago. Afterward, Rice spoke of his memorable dash in simple terms.
"We called the play and the hole opened up," Rice said. "As a running back, you always want a one-on-one. Your eyes get big when you see that hole. They close up a lot quicker in the NFL. That was one of the turning points."
Harbaugh, like Rice in his first year on the job as a rookie head coach, said the 5-foot-8, 205-pound tailback has displayed many qualities which make him a valuable contributor to the Ravens' offense.
Harbaugh said, "How many plays did Ray make where he made a guy miss, ran by somebody or ran through an arm tackle and got us a big third-down conversion on long yardage? I mean, that's just invaluable. That's what good backs do. They leave, Woody Hayes used to say, 'a trail of pearls,' [as in] guys who've missed tackles. That's what you look for in a good back."
As he has developed into one of the league's more versatile threats, Rice's role in Baltimore's three-headed ground attack (along with Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain) has increased. He has posted 254 rushing yards on 42 attempts (6.0 average) over his last four games, and he's racked up 169 receiving yards on 15 catches (11.3 avg.) in addition to averaging 23 yards per kickoff return during that span. Rice is averaging 146 combined yards per contest and 105.8 yards from scrimmage, which ranks 10th in the NFL over that period. During his current hot streak, he has produced 19 first downs (10 rushing and nine receiving), the most for Baltimore.
With statistics like those, has Rice proven to Harbaugh and the other coaches that he deserves more playing time?
"It's a good question," Harbaugh said in regards to Rice, who has 70 attempts for 339 yards on the season (4.8 avg.). "Who gets more playing time, who doesn't get more playing time? We'll find out who is going to play more based on how we match up against this football team. But certainly, Ray has expanded himself with the things he can do and the confidence he builds in the coaching staff. We're a three-headed monster … and we're going to play all three guys."
With a veteran like McGahee giving advice to Rice, he has been able to pay closer attention to the finer intricacies of defensive schemes in the NFL. The first-year back said that has been key to his newfound success.
"Willis and I always talk," Rice said. "I asked him some of the things he sees as a runner. Obviously, he's a special player. He has been in the league a while. I talk to a lot of guys about what they might see in a game. I have to give credit to the offensive line."
While posting the third-highest single-game rushing total for a rookie this season (behind Chris Johnson and Darren McFadden), Rice started the third game of his young NFL career and has earned confidence from his veteran teammates along the way. They know that having a platoon at running back will only benefit the team down the stretch.
"Ray did a great job out there," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "He ran tough, and especially the last run. Ray just kept running the ball, and if you run hard and continue to stay with your technique, you'll bust one, and Ray busted one at the end."
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