OWINGS MILLS, Md. — I thought I had this brilliant idea Monday, going into Ravens’ camp: If running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are two of Baltimore’s best four or five offensive skills players in this post-Boldin/Pitta era, why not put them on the field at the same time in some imaginative pairing?
Rice is such a good receiver. Maybe he could even line up in the slot in some formations. I mean, when current offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was on the Colts’ staff, Indy had a tight end who seemed such a misfit at the time, Dallas Clark, in the slot in 2009, and he caught 100 balls. Peyton Manning turned him into an excellent slot guy.
After practice Monday, coach John Harbaugh said he didn’t see Rice in the slot, though he could be used more often in varied formations. Harbaugh said, without the traded Anquan Boldin and the injured Dennis Pitta, he thought Rice and Pierce on the field at the same time could happen. That’s a good thing, and it would go against the grain of what the Ravens did in 2012, when Pierce was an emerging player as a rookie out of Temple.
I went back and looked at the 2012 Ravens numbers on ProFootballFocus.com, and I was shocked to discover this: Last season, the Super Bowl season, the Ravens ran 1,414 offensive plays in their 18 regular and postseason games, and Rice and Pierce were on the field together for one. One!
That play happened in the Super Bowl. Second quarter. Ball at the Baltimore 25. Pierce and Rice lined up in the I-formation behind an under-center Flacco, Pierce the fullback and Rice behind him. Torrey Smith (left) and Jacoby Jones (right) were the wideouts, and Boldin lined up in the slot to the right. As Flacco called signals, Rice floated into motion to the right, lining up all the way outside the numbers, with starting Niners cornerback Tarell Brown coming to cover him. At the snap, Flacco handed to Pierce, who bolted left, to the weakside, and gained five yards before being pushed out of bounds.
But I found it interesting that the Niners played it by the book. Brown didn’t come inside to cover Jones, obviously the bigger deep threat. He stayed outside to cover Rice, who ran a post but gathered little interest by Brown once the corner saw it was a run to the left. So in 2013, if Rice were to be split out a few times a game, and maybe occasionally be put in the slot, wouldn’t that be a good thing—if only to make the defense wonder what was coming, and who was getting the ball? To be sure, defensive coordinators are going to respect Rice, wherever he lines up. And while the Ravens figure out who they are early in this season with the gigantic hole at tight end—”We won’t know our offensive identity until at least the third or fourth game of the season,” GM Ozzie Newsome told me here Monday—there is no question Rice and Pierce, in tandem, should be used more by a coaching staff that now has to figure how to make the most of a different set of skill players in 2013.
I asked Joe Flacco about using Rice in the slot, and moreso about a Pierce-Rice combo platter, and I like what I heard.
“You can definitely do it [Rice in the slot] a little bit,” Flacco said. “And it would be interesting to see who they put on him and stuff like that. If you can get him lined up one-on-one with a linebacker out there … Even running stuff out of the backfield in your three-wides package with him—it definitely creates problems. I think we are really good when we are running routes with him out of the backfield. Lining him up in the slot and doing those things, because even if you don’t do it a ton, it keeps defenses a little off-balance and it makes the defense think a little bit about what they are going to do. When you get those guys thinking a little bit, and not just out there playing, that’s when you kind of have them. All defenses are talented. If you can let those guys just line up and play fast football and play confidently, then they’re gonna be pretty good. If you throw in a couple wrinkles just to make them think a little bit, then I think that’s when you can get them off balance a little bit.”
Without Boldin and Pitta, that’s going to be the key for the Baltimore offense. Keep the defenses off-balance. Whether it’s playing the speed game with the crew of fast wideouts, or making it more ground-based, we’re going to see a new Baltimore offense this fall—one I hope for the Ravens’ sake includes their two talented backs on the field together.