Have you ever witnessed something so bad, you just can't look away? Like a terrible film, a couple squabbling in your local Walmart, or perhaps your friend's childhood home videos, some things are so bad, they're actually good. Sadly, that is not the case with Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens rushing attack. For this week's edition of the Fantasy Film Study, I went to the tape to see what in the world happened to Ray Rice, and if there's any shred of hope or on-field dignity for him (and your fantasy team) for the rest of the season. The results ... well, let's just say after watching the Ravens' rushing attack, I almost started searching for job openings with the USA Curling Association. It was that bad.
Using Game Rewind, I relived every horrific moment of the Ravens rushing "attack" so far in 2013, and can conclude that while his hip injury in Week 2 slowed him down a bit, this is still the same old Ray Rice. The trouble is, these are not the same old Baltimore Ravens. WARNING: What you're about to see may disturb you, particularly if you're a Ray Rice owner or fan of the Baltimore Ravens.
1) Blockers? We don't need no stinking blockers? Oh wait...
Public enemy No. 1 for the struggling Baltimore rushing offense has been all-around poor blocking. And it's not just one fixable issue. They aren't finishing blocks, communicating at the line, or winning one-on-one battles. It's as if the Ravens offensive line are the doors to a Black Friday sale -- they aren't stopping anybody. A quick look at their grades on Pro Football Focus supports this point, as the only player to grade out positively in run blocking is Marshall Yanda, who barely scrapes by with a 0.2 grade on the season. The rest, well, it isn't pretty, and you can see the results below.
The eye test alone tells me Rice and Bernard Pierce are getting hit at or behind the line of scrimmage more often than most running back tandems. In the Week 1 loss to the Broncos, the duo were hit at or behind the line 12 times. On 21 carries. That's more than fifty percent, and was a harbinger of what was to come the rest of the season.
The Ravens are gaining four or more yards on just 29 percent of their rushing plays. That's the worst in the league, by a wide margin. Even the Jacksonville Jaguars are gaining four-plus on at least 30 percent of rush attempts (31 to be exact). Below is a perfect example why.
This should work out favorably for the Ravens, allowing Rice to get to the second level and pick up a solid gain with the potential to break off a big run. However, communcation along the offensive line falls apart, and as a result Michael Oher, Marshall Yanda and Gino Gradkowski all combine to block one player -- Ahtyba Rubin (No. 71). As you can see below, this leaves Rice with no hole, Craig Robertson (No. 53) bearing down on him from the inside and Paul Kruger (No. 99) crashing from the backside. Rice is able to dive forward for two yards and make something out of nothing.
In addition to communication errors, the Ravens linemen have a habit of not finishing blocks. Routine runs are stymied at or near the line all too often by the Ravens linemen not playing through to the whistle, or getting beat too quickly. They're getting pushed around, plain and simple. It was tough to watch, even as a non-fan.
Fantasy Impact: The inability for the Ravens line to secure blocks for both Rice and Pierce has greatly contributed to their paltry yards-per-carry averages of 2.5 and 2.8 on the season (respectively). Nothing has changed in the nine games the Ravens have played thus far, which doesn't bode well for either runner down the fantasy stretch.
2) Loose ends
Of the Ravens many personnel losses this offseason, it now appears that none may have been bigger than losing Dennis Pitta to injured reserve for the whole season. Having Anquan Boldin depart for the 49ers via trade also hurt, but Pitta's presence contributed greatly both in the passing game, and in run-blocking. In his absence, the combination of Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark has been about as practical as actually using a Clay Matthews Fathead to fix a hole in a wall.
Even though he's only 34 years old, Dallas Clark blocks as if he were on the wrong side of 40. Meanwhile, Ed Dickson can't hold the point of attack, and all too frequently makes the inappropriate read, contributing to Rice and Pierce getting waylaid in the backfield.
Below, Dickson (highlighted) comes in motion, and will serve as Rice's lead-blocker on a simple counter play. This was an excellent call by offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, and should have netted the Ravens a solid gain.
As you can see below, once the play starts, if Dickson seals the edge by blocking Cortez Allen (highlighted) Ray Rice will have an alley you could drive a truck through, with his wide receivers blocking downfield as well. It would have been a play that made Vince Lombardi proud. This is exactly the sort of play that sprung Rice repeatedly in years past for big gains. However, rather than pick up Allen, Dickson decides to amble into the space where Rice should be running, looking for a block that isn't there. Rather than rip off a big run, Rice gets tackled for no gain, much to the ire of fantasy owners across the country.
Fantasy Impact: Blocking tight ends are crucial in a strong running game, and the Ravens lack even one. This limits both Rice's ability to get into space, or get to the corner as neither Clark nor Dickson can set the edge particularly well. Rice and Pierce are thus forced to stay between the tackles, where as I've already pointed out, things are a mess.
3) The lost screen game
For the last few years, the Ravens have excelled in the screen game. Getting Ray Rice into space with a bevy of lead blockers was money in the bank for the Ravens and fantasy owners, as Rice would pick up gobs of yards through the air on such plays. In fact, since 2009 Ray Rice has gained 2,440 receiving yards, more than any other running back in the NFL (the next closest are Darren Sproles [2,394 yards] and Matt Forte [1,848 yards]). Rice is currently on pace for just 286 receiving yards. That would only be 13 more than his career low of 273, which came in 2008 in limited time on the field. A large reason for this dip in production is the Ravens inability to run the screen pass.
All of the aforementioned points come to a head when looking at the Ravens' screen game. A large portion of the problem is the line's inability to get in front of the screen. Either due to a lack of speed, or possibly fatigue, the linemen were frequently late in getting ahead of Rice, and the screen was shutdown before it could get going. Yet, even when the linemen got out in front, they were let down by their teammates inability to finish blocks.
Below, the Ravens set up a well-timed and (for the most part) executed screen. Rice catches the ball with Gradkowski and Yanda leading the way, with lots of real estate in front of them. The only problem, is Wallace Gilberry (a backup defensive end) trailing across the line. Ravens guard A.Q. Shipley couldn't hold off Gilberry, which leaves Oher with the opportunity to pick up Gilberry and let the play develop.
Instead, Oher literally watches Gilberry run right in front of him and stuff the screen for a minimal gain of two yards. Talk about frustrating. Sure, the Ravens lost Matt Birk to retirement at the end of the season, but aside from that, Baltimore essentially started the season with the same line that won the Super Bowl. It's as if they've been collectively resting on their laurels, instead of playing like there is a target on their backs. For that reason, they've been getting pushed around and out-hustled all season.
Fantasy Impact: The Ravens can't run the screen, and when they've tried to flip the ball to Rice out of the backfield, he's typically quickly wrapped up. That's a combination of both the lignering effects of his hip-injury, and defenses wising up. Either way, it stacks up poorly for fantasy owners.
4) Bonus! The Joe Flacco Justification
I had to stick one more point into the listless fantasy corpse known as Ray Rice. Part of my diagnosis as to what went wrong with Ray Rice is Joe Flacco. The quarterback played well during the postseason, and quite literally pounded on owner Steve Bisciotti's desk for his pay raise. The resulting $120.6 million contract seems to have caused the Ravens to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, and show the world that Flacco was worth it. Currently, Flacco is on pace for 615 attempts in 2013, or 73 more than his previous career high. And the results have not been positive. Flacco has already thrown more interceptions in nine games than he did all last season, and is only completing 59 percent of his passes. Unfortunately, with the Ravens on the edge of the playoff hunt, none of this is likely to change in the coming weeks.
Between the lack of blocking, inability to run the screen and the lingering effects of his early-season hip injury, Ray Rice can no longer be trusted as a starting fantasy running back. If you own him you must find a replacement, whether it be via trade or the waiver wire. Rice is a viable flex play this week against the Bears, who are allowing the eighth-most fantasy points to running backs, so you have some time. But if the Ravens offensive line can't manage to block the depleted Bears defensive front, then their issues are worse than I thought. Even if he re-emerges against the Bears, do you want your fantasy season to rest on his shoulders? He has favorable matchups down the stretch (home against Pittsburgh and Minnesota), but even then, I can't trust him to perform.
So, is this the end of Ray Rice as a fantasy stud? I'm nowhere near ready to stick a fork in him. While Rice's open-field running has been jokingly referred to as a "kid in a snowsuit" I think that's a bit harsh. Rice has still shown some of the vision and elusiveness that made him such a threat the past four years, even if he's a tad slower than we're accustomed to seeing, thanks to the hip injury. The trouble is, no amount of elusiveness is going to help him dodge defenders pitching a tent in his backfield. It's time to hang up Rice's fantasy cleats, as sad as that may be. Unless you want to torment yourself further. If that's the case, just rent "The Room" instead.
- Alex Gelhar writes features and fantasy pieces for NFL.com. Typically, he tries to write something witty in this signature, but is coming up empty at the moment. You can follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar in the hopes that he redeems himself there, but you probably have a better chance of witnessing Ray Rice turning things around.