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Off-balance Ravens mostly agree on one thing: Rice needs the ball

by | CBSSports.com
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Once is an exception. But twice is closing in on a trend.

After Baltimore's 22-17 loss to Seattle, the offensive game plan has once again come under fire. If the Seattle loss was the first time the Ravens saw Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice carry the ball only five times, then the outcome could've been swept under the rug as an aberration.

But for the second time in four games, Rice received little attention on offense. In a 12-7 Monday night loss to Jacksonville, Rice toted the ball just eight times. The following Tuesday, coach John Harbaugh said Rice had to get the ball more.

History repeated itself against Seattle. Once the Ravens were down 10-0 in the first quarter, the Ravens got away from giving the ball to their best offensive weapon.

"When you get down in a situation, you have to climb your way out," Rice said. "I'm not going to be a guy that talks about touches. But going into a game, five carries is not going to cut it."

The players were on the same page after losing to the Jaguars, all echoing, "Get Rice the ball."

But following the Seattle game, the responses to the offense's troubles have varied.

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Harbaugh said the flow of the game -- combined with Seattle's defense -- dictated Joe Flacco to throw 52 passes. Tight end Ed Dickson said Flacco needed more control of the offense during his weekly spot on Baltimore radio station 105.7 The Fan on Monday. The following Tuesday, cornerback Lardarius Webb, on the same station, said Rice needed more than five carries.

Ray Lewis backed Rice, saying the Ravens' offense has to identify its No. 1 strength.

"That's our bell cow," Lewis said. "If that talent right there isn't touching the ball 25-30 times then you have to question yourself, 'What are we actually doing balance wise?'"

Lewis said the Ravens experienced something similar during Baltimore's Super Bowl campaign in 2000. Through the first nine games, running back Jamal Lewis received 20 carries in a game once, and the Ravens began the season 5-4.

Over the next 11 games (including the playoffs), Jamal Lewis only saw less than 22 carries once en route to a Super Bowl title.

But in today's pass-happy NFL, the answer may not be as simple as running the ball to open up the pass. While Rice would like to see a Jamal Lewis-like workload, even the worst NFL defenses are better prepared to stop the run than ever before.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron might be somewhere stuck in the middle, wanting to establish the run while taking what the defense is willing to give him.

"There's no one that wants to get Ray the ball more than I do, or we do as a staff," Cameron said. "Sometimes circumstances dictate -- now you're starting to throw it to a guy [more] than hand it to him. That has its challenges. In an overall sense by the end of this season, [Rice] needs to be a guy getting the ball much more than anyone in the league."

When Seattle got up 10-0, the Seahawks defense presented a look-up front to take away Rice and the running game. The Ravens felt they had to respond by opening up the game for Flacco. Despite being down early with, arguably, plenty of time to re-establish the run, Flacco -- a tad testy -- said airing the ball out was the only way Baltimore could win.

"Did you watch the game or didn't you watch the game?" Flacco said. "I understand the way our running backs feel. If we were throwing the ball 10 times I'd be a little upset I didn't get to put my stamp on the game either. But did you see how the game went?"

Flacco is on pace to throw 641 passes this season, though his completion percentage is 54.8 percent. Only Drew Bledsoe (691 in 1994), Peyton Manning (679 in 2010), Drew Brees (658 in 2010 and 652 in 2007) and Warren Moon (655 in 1991) have thrown more than 641 attempts in a season. Last season, Flacco threw 489 passes and completed 62.6 percent of them. The Ravens' pass/run ratio this season sits at 62 percent pass, 37 percent rush, where it was practically split down the middle in 2010.

"Every team's a little bit different and every game can be a little bit different," Cameron said. "If you go against a great run defense, you might go one direction. If a team is struggling in pass defense, you may go another. We'd like to think at some point in time, hopefully sooner than later, we can go either way. And I think we've proven we can do that."

In the never-ending chess match the NFL has become, is there a time to simply line up your best against the opposition's best and play smash-mouth football? Or has the game evolved so much where coaches are forced to fine-tooth every potential tendency the other team may present?

"One thing about the offense, offense has to be balanced," Rice said. "But you have to find a way to have that balance."

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