Should Ravens be concerned about Rice?

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- How poorly has this season gone for the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice? Two quarterbacks are averaging more rushing yards per game than the Pro Bowl running back.

Rice was the NFL's best all-around back for the previous four seasons, breaking tackles for long runs and eluding defenders in the open field after a catch. Now, he is the biggest question mark on an offense that has become the weak link for the defending Super Bowl champions.

While the offensive line has failed to open holes consistently, Rice looks more like a 36-year-old running back than a 26-year-old one. He isn't accelerating up to the line. He isn't producing yards after contact. He isn't delivering big plays, or for that matter, three-yard gains on a regular basis.

The more disturbing part is his uncharacteristic mistakes. Rice has fumbled twice this season, and he dropped a pass Sunday when there was a lot of open field in front of him. There is just something "off" about Rice this year.

The Ravens have to be getting concerned about Rice's productivity. He's only in the second year of a five-year contract that included a $15 million signing bonus and $24 million guaranteed.

After gaining 34 rushing yards Sunday -- the fourth time in five games he's been held under 37 yards rushing -- Rice even acknowledged that he was "a little frustrated."

"I think Ray has handled it as well as you can," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "Obviously, you're going to be frustrated, especially when you're him (and) you're used to producing a certain way. He's not putting himself above anything else. The biggest thing is that we haven't been winning, and we haven't been doing as well as we wanted to on offense."

Smith added, "It's not necessarily about him and his own stats. It's about us as a unit going out there and trying to be the best offense we can be. We haven't met our own expectations, and he's definitely frustrated with that. I don't think it's necessarily about just his own personal numbers because if we do what we're supposed to do, then the numbers will come."

Coach John Harbaugh said Monday that changes are being made to the Ravens' running game. The Ravens might want to consider running the ball after spreading defenses out. It worked for the Packers against the Ravens on Sunday.

The current scheme isn't working for the Ravens or Rice. He's averaging 39.4 yards per game, which ranks 39th in the NFL and behind quarterbacks Michael Vick (61.4) and Terrelle Pryor (57.8).

"I'm not an analyst. I just think we need to keep fighting to get him going and open up holes the best we can, give him the best look we can," guard Marshal Yanda said. "Do what can to give him the cleanest looks and let him do his thing because we all understand what he does best. He's a great player. We want to get him going."

The biggest difference in Rice is his lack of burst. Rice's longest run this season is 14 yards. He is one of two running backs who has over 70 carries and has failed to produce a 20-yard gain (Rashard Mendenhall is the other).

Rice is getting hit a lot behind the line, but he's being brought down too easily. He's only broken three tackles this season, and 39 running backs have more than that. The result: Rice has 78 yards after contact (34th in the NFL) and averages 1.1 yards after contact (39th).

"He was banged up for a couple of weeks, and this is his first couple weeks back," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Anytime you get a little banged up and aren't 100 percent, you need some time because you can get full explosion."

Rice injured his hip in the fourth quarter of Week 2 and sat out the following game. Last week, he took exception to the description of being "banged up" and said he was getting more confident in his cutting ability.

Is Rice close to being 100 percent healthy?

"You'd have to ask Ray for that percentage," Harbaugh said. But Rice wasn't made available to reporters Wednesday, so you'll have to come to your own opinion about whether the injury is significantly affecting Rice.

I'm not suggesting Rice should be blamed for all of the Ravens' struggles in the running game. Rice is gaining 2.8 yards per carry, and backup Bernard Pierce has the same woeful average. That shows it's not all of Rice's fault.

The Ravens are looking to get the running back on track Sunday against the Steelers. Not only is Pittsburgh's run defense ranked 22nd in the NFL, Rice has had success against the Steelers in the past. Rice has produced two of the seven 100-yard rushing games allowed by Pittsburgh since 2008.

"Obviously, we want to run the ball as much as we can," Yanda said. "Obviously, we want to get after them. It's going to be one of those physical games. Hopefully we get to but you never know. We'd like to. We want to. But we'll see."