Ray Rice leads the way for Ravens

When the Ravens face tough games late in the season, they usually feed the ball to Ray Rice. Kirby Lee/US Presswire

Ray Rice's incredible fourth-down dash through the Chargers' defense Sunday has led to endless replays on highlight shows. It's stirred a debate whether this is the greatest play in Ravens history. It even inspired someone to print up T-shirts that read "Hey diddle diddle, Ray Rice up the middle."

The significance of this play won't be known for a few more weeks. If the Ravens go on to clinch a top seed in the AFC playoffs and eventually reach the Super Bowl, Rice's 28 1/2-yard run-after-the-catch journey will be remembered as the springboard play that got them there.

What will resonate longer than this improbable play is the impact of Rice. He leads on the practice field. He leads in the locker room. And, when the Ravens need a game-changing play, Rice leads the way to victory.

This happened three seasons ago in the playoffs in New England, where Rice set the tone with an 83-yard touchdown to open the game. It was the same way in last season's finale when Rice ran for 191 yards and two touchdowns to clinch the AFC North title. On Sunday, when the Ravens play the division rival Steelers, they can secure a playoff berth for the fifth straight season with a win, and everyone from the Monongahela River to the Chesapeake Bay knows whom they should lean on to get it done.

The Ravens have repeatedly tried to become a pass-first offense and make quarterback Joe Flacco the centerpiece of the attack. But Flacco is just too inconsistent, from game to game and even quarter to quarter. The offensive rock in Baltimore is Rice, who leads the NFL in total yards from scrimmage since 2009. Rice has produced 7,083 yards over the past four seasons, a staggering number when you consider only one other player (Tennessee's Chris Johnson) has eclipsed 6,000 yards during that same time.

This is a dangerous offense when the ball is in the hands of Rice. The Ravens only help the opposing defense when they make him a decoy. This isn't just an opinion. History proves it. The Ravens are 32-10 when Rice gets 20 touches or more, a .761 winning percentage. They are 12-9 when he touches the ball fewer than 20 times, a .571 winning percentage.

The low point of the Ravens' season so far was a 43-13 loss at Houston. Not coincidentally, it was also the season low in carries for Rice with nine. Since then, Rice has received at least 20 carries in three of the team's past four games -- all wins.

There seems to be a timetable for when Rice becomes the focal point to the Ravens offense. You can almost write it in your calendar. For the first half of the season, the Ravens want to throw the ball. By late November, Baltimore starts using the pages in the playbook for Rice.

In the first nine games of 2011, when the Ravens went 6-3, Rice averaged 20.4 touches. In the past seven, when Baltimore went 6-1, Rice's touches increased to 26.1 per game. The same trend occurred in 2010, when Rice averaged 24 touches in December.

Some might say the Ravens' run game heats up when the weather gets colder. My take is the Ravens pace Rice through the first couple months of the season. When the games become more critical late in the season and it gets closer to the playoffs, Baltimore knows it's time to rev up Rice.

This has been a tougher season than previous ones for Rice. He's on pace to finish with 1,154 yards rushing, which would be his lowest in four seasons as Baltimore's featured back. Some of that production is a result of poorer blocking this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he will finish with 96 fewer yards before contact than 2011.

Still, Rice is the biggest edge that the Ravens have against the Steelers. Pittsburgh has the NFL's top-ranked defense, and has a two-time Super Bowl winner at quarterback (that is, when Ben Roethlisberger is healthy). But the Steelers have no one in their backfield even close to Rice.

On Sunday, Rice saved the Ravens on fourth-and-a mile, and the Steelers watched every running back on their roster fumble. Pittsburgh can generate the occasional 100-yard rushing game out of Jonathan Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall or Isaac Redman. Rice, though, is nearly a lock to total 90 to 100 yards in a game. His 37 games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage is tops in the NFL since 2009, four more than Adrian Peterson and six more than Arian Foster.

"Ray Rice is special," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He is a guy for all situations, as I have said before, even on fourth-and-29."

The Ravens knew long before that play that they could count on Rice. In 2008, three months after being drafted in the second round by the Ravens (55th overall), Rice soon became the only healthy running back in training camp. It took a few days before the Ravens could bring in another back, so Rice took nearly every carry -- and every hit -- without complaining.

That was the first sign of Rice's toughness and character. His leadership has grown over the years. Rice spoke up at halftime during a regular-season game against the Texans when he wasn't pleased with his team's play. It wasn't a speech that will be remembered in Ravens lore. But it showed Rice becoming more and more assertive.

"He's been a leader for us from the first day of camp," coach John Harbaugh said at the time. "He talks to our guys all the time about execution. That's his thing. We're going to be physical, now let's make sure we execute. ... That means doing all the little things well and right."

There's been a feeling in the organization for the past couple of years that Ray Lewis has been grooming Rice to take over as team leader. Rice has certainly earned that role. So, even when Lewis decides to retire, the Ravens will still be Ray's team. It'll just be Little Ray, who has repeatedly stood tall when the Ravens have needed him the most.