Rice's Smile Always There, No Matter The Workload

Posted on July 25, 2013

VETS BELIEVE IN UPSHAW; QUALITY OF '13 FOES

By Joe Platania

OWINGS MILLS -- Ray Rice's smile is always there, with teeth that act as barriers to whatever could cause tension or negativity.

During the summer of 2012, it was the down-to-the-wire contract extension negotiations that ended with a new five-year, $35 million deal ($24 million guaranteed) five minutes before the deadline for franchised players to sign such a pact.

During the fall, it was a game- and possibly season-saving fourth-and-29 conversion during an overtime win at San Diego, which helped the Ravens cement their postseason place before a December swoon. Afterward, Rice flashed the grin and put a new twist on an old rhyme, "Hey-diddle-diddle, Ray Rice up the middle."

In 2013, it's the prospect of Ravens coaches taking away some of his carries as they try to exploit the larger, change-of-pace frame that Bernard Pierce brings to the Ravens' running game. Not only that, a few nationally televised criticisms from former Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb have also entered the daily conversation.

But Rice, as usual, smiled through the query when it was raised the afternoon of July 25 after practice, a session during which he displayed his usual quick cuts and good point-of-attack burst.

"Every year, there's something," he said. "If there was everything good said about me, then there would be nothing more to prove. But if it's [negative], then my job is to prove myself again."

It's not as if the 5-foot-8, 212-pound Rice needs any sort of validation as to his place among the league's best dual threats.

Since becoming a full-time starter in 2009, Rice has accumulated more net yards from scrimmage than anyone in the league. His total of 7,506 yards puts him almost 500 yards ahead of the man with the second-highest total, Tennessee's Chris Johnson.

Playing for a team that has had a run-first philosophy for most of its history, Rice is also the first Raven to have four straight 1,000-yard seasons, something even all-time leader Jamal Lewis didn't accomplish. Moreover, Rice's 5,520 career rush yards are second in Ravens history only to Lewis' 7,801.

Not only that, Rice's 1,143 rushing yards and 478 receiving yards in 2012 made him one of only three players leaguewide to accumulate more than 1,000 and 400 in those respective categories, along with Tampa Bay's Doug Martin and Buffalo's C.J. Spiller.

It all translated into Rice's second straight Pro Bowl berth and third overall, even though such personal spotlights don't seem to impress him.

"Ray is unselfish," head coach John Harbaugh said. "He's a team guy. His big concern, No. 1, is winning. He wants touches, receptions and yards, and he can run the football and pass protect. But he wants the offense to put up points [first]."

But it is worth noting that Rice's 257 carries last year marked his fewest since toting the ball 254 times in 2009. Not only that, his 61 receptions marked his fewest since his rookie year (33).

And whenever Rice's touches decreased, wins seemed harder to come by, a fact not lost on talk-radio callers and message-board posters who alleged that the Ravens gave up on Rice and the ground game too soon under since-dismissed offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

Rice had 22 touches during Week Two a loss at Philadelphia, and subsequent 18- and 17-touch efforts against Kansas City and Dallas resulted in narrow wins. He got 14 attempts during the blowout Houston loss, but after the bye, Rice averaged 25 touches per game during wins against Cleveland, Oakland, Pittsburgh and San Diego.  

Meanwhile, the 6-foot, 228-pound Pierce was entrusted with 115 regular-season touches and 40 postseason opportunities during a four-game playoff run when the unthinkable happened.

After fumbling once during the regular season, Rice put the ball on the ground three times -- twice against Indianapolis during the wild-card game, once during the Super Bowl -- with the opponents recovering the ball each time.

But, just as Harbaugh would expect him to, Rice seems to have put that behind him as well. No matter how many touches he gets this year, he'll make them count.

And he'll make sure he smiles all the way to the end zone.

***

JOEY P'S TRIVIA TIME: Today's question:

The Ravens are optimistic about this year's pass rush because of bookend linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. If the team gets an increase of 24 sacks -- which happens to be the record for any pass-rushing duo in team history, Trevor Pryce and Adalius Thomas (2006) -- from last year's total of 37, it will set a single-season record of 61 quarterback takedowns, breaking the team best set in 2006.

It would also mark the largest jump in sacks from one season to the next in team history. During which year did the second-highest increase take place?

The answer appears at the end of today's column.

***

PRACTICE REPORT: For the first time during the 2013 training camp, the full roster was eligible to hit the field at the Under Armour Performance Center.

Here are a few highlights from the mid-afternoon session, held in shorts and shells (pads won't come on until July 27, per the collective bargaining agreement) and in perfect outdoor conditions:

- As a nod to Harbaugh's historical predilection, the Ravens made like Gen. Douglas McArthur and returned to work after the July 24 trip to Gettysburg, practicing in front of a full complement of 200 fans that won an online lottery. The session began a stretch of five straight practice days; the team will not be off again until July 30.

- Not practicing were those already not expected to be on the field: the two players already on the Physically Unable To Perform list, linebacker Jameel McClain (back) and guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder), as well as a just-added third player, second-year safety Anthony Levine (shoulder).

- Tackle Bryant McKinnie was also not on the field. "He's not in good shape," Harbaugh said. "I didn't feel comfortable putting him out there. … I'm feeling disappointed. There's an issue, and we're going to get it fixed."

- As expected, wide receiver Jacoby Jones passed his conditioning test on his second try at approximately 10 a.m. July 25. His activation for practice leaves sixth-round draft pick and defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore (knee) as the only player on the team's Non-Football Injury list. There are 85 players on the active roster and 89 total.

- With McKinnie out, the coaches moved Kelechi Osemele over to left tackle and inserted Jah Reid at left guard. Ramon Harewood played right guard in place of Yanda. Other moves, ones that seemed strictly experimental, involved Albert McClellan joining Daryl Smith at inside linebacker and James Ihedigbo as the strong safety in place of Matt Elam, even though Elam did get on the field late during the session.

- The receivers had a mixed day, with Torrey Smith and LaQuan Williams having good days catching the ball and Tandon Doss struggling to do the same. Jones made a nice sideline catch in front of Jimmy Smith -- who was picked on often -- but the official ruled the catch out of bounds despite cheers from the fans on hand.

- Haloti Ngata was active inside, pushing Reid all the way into the backfield on one play early in team drills. Inside linebacker Josh Bynes got free on a run blitz and would have stuffed Pierce in the backfield, but Dumervil was well-blocked on a peelback effort from tight end Ed Dickson.

- Kicker Justin Tucker was his usual effective self, but while he was working with the kicking net on the sideline, it fell on him and temporarily trapped him like a caged animal, eliciting laughter from the fans.

- Even though there are 89 players in camp, several jersey numbers have been duplicated. There are two players wearing 34 (Bobby Rainey, Moe Lee), another pair with 48 (Alex Silvestro, Brandon Copeland) and two more with 64 (Rogers Gaines, Will Pericak).

***

A HELPING HAND UP(SHAW): The July 24 media podium spotlight focused on bookend pass rushers Suggs and Dumervil, two of the top 10 active sack artists in the NFL.

But the name Courtney Upshaw was not far from the microphone, either.

During his rookie season, 2012 second-round draft pick Upshaw played in all 16 games with nine starts and recorded 55 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, as he slowly acclimated himself to a myriad of roles on both the first and second level of the defense. Upshaw did prove to be a good edge-setter against the run despite his lack of production against the pass.

But during the offseason, Upshaw's weight ballooned to nearly 300 pounds, earning a strong public rebuke from head coach John Harbaugh about his eating habits. Taking those words to heart, Upshaw reportedly shed 25-30 pounds before camp opened this week; he is listed at 272 pounds.

General manager Ozzie Newsome is fond of saying that any team can't have too many effective pass rushers. Suggs and Dumervil seemed to agree.

"Courtney is another good player as well," Dumervil said. "… Courtney brings his presence and it's going to be good for everybody. … He's a good run stopper, and I think his football IQ is pretty good, too."

For Suggs' part, it's not his job to decide where or how often Upshaw plays, so long as he does.

"I think Courtney's going to be stout for us," Suggs said. "I don't know particularly where or how it's going to work out, but I know it's going to work out. We're going to get him on the field as much as we possibly can."

***

TOUGH SCHEDULE: In case you missed it when Ravens Report published the offseason guide after the Super Bowl, the 2013 Ravens will play the AFC's toughest schedule -- based on opponents' 2012 records -- and the fifth toughest in the entire league.

This year's opponents combined for a record of 137-119 (.535) last season, a mark topped only by Carolina and the three teams tied for second: Detroit, New Orleans and St. Louis.

But there could be some solace in the fact that the Ravens' younger, faster, deeper defense will play four of 16 games against offense ranked in last year's top 10; New England (first), Detroit (third), Denver (fourth) and Houston (seventh).

Not only that, the games against Detroit and New England aren't until December, so last year's offensive characteristics, and the players that embodied them, might be long gone by that time.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens' offense will play eight games -- half the schedule -- against top 10 defenses from 2012.

Those include the two contests against top-ranked Pittsburgh and two more versus sixth-ranked Cincinnati. Other such opponents include Denver (second), Chicago (fifth), Houston (seventh) and the New York Jets (eighth).

***

QUOTE OF THE DAY: This one is for the fans' bulletin board, the one that invariably lists all the disrespect, real and imagined, that is allegedly aimed at the Ravens.

In previewing his upcoming training camp tour, ESPN.com's John Clayton wrote the following:

"I couldn't squeeze in trips to Baltimore or Pittsburgh this summer, but those franchises are always solid and always contenders.

"But the [Cincinnati] Bengals are the most intriguing team in the [AFC North] division. On paper, they might be the best team."

***

JOEY P'S TRIVIA TIME ANSWER: Here's the question we asked you earlier in this column:

The Ravens are optimistic about this year's pass rush because of bookend linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. If the team gets an increase of 24 sacks -- which happens to be the record for any pass-rushing duo in team history, Trevor Pryce and Adalius Thomas (2006) -- from last year's total of 37, it will set a single-season record of 61 quarterback takedowns, breaking the team best set in 2006.

It would also mark the largest jump in sacks from one season to the next in team history. During which year did the second-highest increase take place?

ANSWER:

Sharp-eyed fans can probably guess the answer to this one.

The 2006 team, which won 13 games and the second of the Ravens' four AFC North Division titles, racked up 60 sacks. That marked an increase of 18 quarterback takedowns from the injury- and dissension-riddled 2005 squad, which lost seven of its first nine games and finished the season at 6-10.

The acquisition of two-time Super Bowl winner and former Denver Broncos rush end Pryce -- who still lives in the Baltimore area -- had a lot to do with that. Pryce recorded a team-high 13 sacks, with Thomas getting 11.

The previous season, no one on the team reached double figures in the category; Thomas' nine-sack effort and Suggs' eight-takedown output led the Ravens.

Looking at the Ravens' sack totals through the years, it's noteworthy that the 2000 Super Bowl XXXV-winning team, which set all kinds of NFL defensive standards, recorded only 35 sacks, a decrease of 14 from the previous year.

Posted July 25, 2013

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