Ray Rice could have integral role in Ravens' offensive shift
Ray Rice, he of 61 receptions last regular season and 311 over his five years in Baltimore, says that he wants to catch more passes in 2013. That's good news for the Ravens because, well, someone has to replace Anquan Boldin's production.
"Now that guys know that I'm a threat out of the backfield, I got to use my hands a little more," Rice told The Baltimore Sun over the weekend. "I get pushed a lot coming out of the backfield, and that's a sign of respect, but if I can get my hands and get out on pass routes [I'll] continue to get open for Joe Flacco."
The Ravens' apparently salary cap-fueled decision to dump Boldin off on San Francisco for a sixth-round draft pick was one of the offseason's bigger shocks. The 32-year-old receiver led Baltimore last season with 65 catches, then took over in the playoffs to the tune of 22 receptions, 380 yards and four TDs.
Making the Boldin trade even more of a head-scratcher: The Ravens balked on adding another big-name receiver, doing nothing beyond taking Elon's Aaron Mellette in the seventh round and signing a couple of undrafted free agents. Granted, Mellette could be a steal. But the Ravens' clear plan is fill the void left by Boldin with pieces already on the roster.
There is a laundry list of receivers in the mix for the No. 2 receiver slot opposite Torrey Smith, including Super Bowl hero Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, David Reed, Tommy Streeter and Mellette. Of that group, only Jones hit double-digits in receptions last season (30).
So, instead of relying on an unreliable receiving corps, the Ravens may be better served to feed the ball to Rice and tight end Dennis Pitta.
How might that happen?
It starts with shucking the notion that the Ravens have to "replace" Bolden by finding an exact replica of him for their offense. Their passive approach to the receiver position in the draft and free agency indicates that Baltimore has embraced that idea.
The Ravens' alternative is to get more creative with how they take advantage of their proven weapons.
They employed a three-receiver set on 45.3 percent of their snaps last season, including the playoffs (thanks to the always-useful ProFootballFocus.com for the help with these numbers) -- Smith and Boldin, with Jones usually sliding in as the third WR option. Barring another trade this summer or breakout camp performances from multiple players, Boldin's departure should drive that number down, with Baltimore turning to two tight end looks.
The presence of Pitta and fellow tight end Ed Dickson allows for such a change. And it is one that offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell already began to put in practice last season after taking over for Cam Cameron.
Caldwell favored a "12" personnel grouping (one back, two tight ends) far more than Cameron did. Matt Vensel of the Sun reported the Ravens went to that look 18.2 percent of the time under Caldwell, compared to 12.5 percent under Cameron.
Picking through all the stats, here's what this means for Rice: A Baltimore offense trending toward fewer three-receiver and more two tight end sets means that the versatile running back will trade in some pass-protecting duties for playmaking.
In other words, Rice may get his wish to become a more integral part of the passing game, because the Ravens' current roster dictates it.
Let's also be clear in what exactly the Ravens lost by dealing Boldin. Though some of his most memorable plays during last year's Super Bowl run came downfield, Boldin is much more of a possession receiver than a traditional deep threat.
Case in point, of Boldin's 87 catches over the 2012 regular season and playoffs, 47 -- or 54 percent -- came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
That window also accounted for 72 percent of Flacco's completions last year (282 of 390). Boldin was a go-to option for Flacco in close quarters and over the middle. While one of those myriad wide receivers could step into his shoes, the Pitta/Dickson combo and Rice both excel in those same areas.
Rice, for example, made all but one of his 69 total catches in 2012 inside that 10-yard cutoff, with 49 of the grabs occurring between the hash marks; Pitta and Dickson chipped in 53 more receptions over the middle of the field.
All of this lines up for the Ravens to be, for lack of a better term, a bit more Patriots-like in how they run their offense. Receiver-starved New England stopped attempting to stretch the field horizontally with underwhelming options, and instead began using Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and a bevy of talented running backs to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties.
That's similar to how the Ravens may move the football this season.
It almost goes without saying that the running game will remain a massive part of Baltimore's offense, especially with Pierce coming on strong last season to aid Rice. The Rice/Pierce combo, led into the line by Leach, is far too dangerous to take carries from, and the lack of obvious talent at receiver may drop even more of an onus on Baltimore's ground attack.
When the Ravens take to the air, though, it likely will be with Leach on the sideline and Rice, Pitta, Dickson and Pierce spreading the field underneath.