Should Ravens reduce Ray Rice's role?

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Bernard Pierce, not Ray Rice, should be the Baltimore Ravens' featured running back Sunday in Chicago.

This isn't a campaign to bench Rice or give his role away permanently. This isn't a post calling out Rice as the major reason the Ravens rank 30th in the NFL in running the ball.

My point is the Ravens need to give Pierce an opportunity to run the ball 15-20 times against the Bears. Sunday's 20-17 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals was the first time this season when Pierce was the clearly the better back than Rice. He was more explosive and was the team's leading rusher (31 yards) despite having 10 fewer carries than Rice.

Is there any chance the Ravens would make Pierce the featured back?

"I don't think that would be the solution," coach John Harbaugh said Monday.

Harbaugh did acknowledge the Ravens would be flexible during games in who is lining up with quarterback Joe Flacco in the backfield.

"Both of those guys are going to get a large number of carries and I think whichever guy is playing better should get more carries as we're going forward," Harbaugh said. "Both those guys have got to play for us and play well."

Rice has been the Ravens' most consistent playmaker since he became the featured back in 2009. Without Rice bursting through the line of scrimmage and breaking tackles, the Ravens don't make the playoffs every year and don't win the Super Bowl.

But Rice isn't the same Rice. The numbers prove it:

  • From 2009 to 2012, Rice averaged 78.6 yards rushing per game. This year, he's averaging 36.1 yards, which is 47th in the NFL.

  • From 2009 to 2012, Rice averaged 4.53 yards per carry. This year, he's averaging 2.5 yards, which is last among starting running backs.

  • From 2009 to 2012, Rice averaged 1.53 yards after contact. This year, he's averaging less than a yard, which is 46th in the NFL.

Part of the blame goes to an offensive line that isn't opening many holes, which could be attributed to a series of injuries and surgeries. Some of the blame goes to the Ravens' blocking scheme.

But there have been times when there have been running lanes and Rice hasn't hit them before they closed up. The Ravens don't have a physical enough line to hold blocks, and Rice has to get to the line quicker. There is just not the same burst, which is why he is the only NFL running back this season with at least 110 carries who doesn't have a 20-yard run this year. His longest run is 14 yards.

There are only two options why Rice's play has dramatically fallen off this year: He's either hurt or he's done as a playmaking running back in this league.

I have repeatedly written that Rice isn't at full strength. After insisting he has fully recovered from a hip injury, he averaged 1.5 yards against the Browns and 1.7 yards against the Bengals.

"His health has been a factor," Harbaugh said. "There's no doubt about it. He's working hard to become healthier, and that's important. That hip flexor is a muscle injury and it's hard to predict exactly what impact that has. But you have got to assume it's had an impact."

It's difficult to believe Rice is done at the age of 26. Look at the top 15 rushers in the NFL right now. Only three (Alfred Morris, Eddie Lacy and DeMarco Murray) are younger than Rice.

This problem goes beyond this season. In his 15 games with Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator, Rice has two runs over 20 yards. He hasn't broken one over 20 yards in his past 10 games.

For the season, the Ravens have gained more yards on the ground than Atlanta and Jacksonville.

"We need to get better with our run game," Harbaugh said. "We gained a few more yards but that, to me, is negligible because we're not as successful as we need to be. We're not even close. We talked about the reasons for it. It's not one thing. If it was one thing, you could either fix it or you'd have to throw your hands up and say it's something you can't fix because you don't have the answer. Neither one of those is true."

The Ravens have made changes to try to jump-start this offense, from switching left tackles to altering formations. It's time for the Ravens to consider another one because of Sunday's opponent. The Chicago Bears give up 129.4 yards on the ground. Only the Jaguars have allowed more.

Here are some other notes from the news conference:

  • Backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor gained 18 yards after lining up as a slot receiver Sunday and taking a pitch from Joe Flacco. Harbaugh was asked whether the Ravens could use that play more in the future. "Perhaps," he said. "It's an option for us."

  • Harbaugh was presented with the United States Sports Academy's Amos Alonzo Stagg coaching award, which recognizes a men's coach who has experienced outstanding achievement and a high standard of imagination and innovation. "It means so much for a coach and a son of a coach," Harbaugh said. "It will be treasured." Past NFL coaches who have won it include Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick.

  • The Ravens head to Chicago on Sunday to play the Bears, whose most famous fan is President Barack Obama. "Yes, I'm sure he'll be watching this game very closely," said Harbaugh, who spoke with Obama during the Ravens' White House visit five months ago, "and we'll do our best to disappoint him."