Fourth-and-29 is a down and distance that will go down in Baltimore Ravens lore because of the singular effort of Ray Rice. As the final option in Joe Flacco's progression on that play, Rice took a simple dump-off pass the distance needed for an improbable first down that for all intents and purposes saved what would become a Super Bowl-winning season for the Ravens.
That play notwithstanding, Rice's fantasy productivity in 2012 dropped slightly from his three previous seasons as the Ravens' primary ball carrier, and it's important to find out why.
Many people will automatically point to the opportunities that rookie Bernard Pierce was given as the cause of Rice's mild decline. That response is anecdotal and not based in fact. While Pierce was given 108 carries last season, that number is in direct line with the quantity of opportunities that Rice's primary backup has traditionally been given. Would anyone argue that Willis McGahee's 100 carries in 2009, 109 carries in 2010 or Ricky Williams' 108 carries in 2011 adversely impacted Rice's elite performance in those years? Of course not, because they didn't. What people are really missing are the carries that were given to players other than Rice or his primary backup, as that number significantly increased in 2012 and we should quantify why that happened.
The Ravens ran 1,042 plays from scrimmage in 2012. On those plays, they passed 53.7 percent of the time. This was an increase compared to 2011, when they passed on 52.5 percent of their plays. This is a minor variation that resulted in only 13 fewer rush attempts, so it should not factor into the value that Rice carries into this season. In 2011, Rice and his primary backup Williams, combined for 399 rush attempts. Those carries represented 87 percent of the Ravens' total rush attempts. In 2012, Rice and Pierce combined for 365 rush attempts, or just 82 percent of the Ravens' total rushes. That drop means that they lost more than 20 attempts -- the equivalent of nearly one full game's worth of opportunities -- to the likes of Anthony Allen and Tyrod Taylor. However, it's worth noting that Allen and Taylor did their damage in Week 17, when the Ravens sat most of their starters for the majority of that game. Therefore, while Rice's total percentage of carries decreased, a great portion of that decline was due to the use of third- and fourth-tier options in the Ravens' meaningless Week 17 game. Since the resting of players in Week 17 is extremely variable (and doesn't impact most fantasy teams), let's turn our attention to determining if there's an area of the field where Pierce has a significant opportunity to eat into Rice's opportunities.
Let's start in the red zone, where Ray Rice receives approximately 25 percent of his fantasy value, based on touchdowns alone. In this area, there is virtually no chance that Pierce makes any significant headway into Rice's value. Last season, Rice had 36 carries in the red zone, gaining 105 yards and scoring eight touchdowns on those opportunities. Pierce wasn't given nearly the same number of opportunities, perhaps because he was one of the least effective red zone rushers in the league. In nine attempts in the red zone, Pierce had just 13 yards and one touchdown.
While some may try to point to compressed defensive alignments close to the goal line as a driver of Pierce's miserable production in this area, seven of those nine attempts came from the 10-yard line or further away. Based on this data, it's safe to conclude that Rice will remain the primary rushing option for the Ravens in the red zone, and more importantly, close to the goal line.
While Rice is safe there, outside of the red zone his opportunities could be vulnerable. From the Ravens' own goal line, to the opponents' 20-yard line, Pierce was the more productive runner. Within this section of the field, Pierce averaged 5.2 yards per carry to Rice's 4.7 yards. Among players with at least 75 rushes in this area, Pierce finished fifth in the NFL behind only Adrian Peterson, C.J. Spiller, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch. That being said, Rice finished 14th in this metric and exceeded the league average by almost 0.2 yards, so he's still very good. That rushing analysis misses one key factor: Rice's impact in the Ravens' passing attack.
Going into the 2012 NFL draft, Pierce was rated as below average in the passing game on his ESPN Insider draft profile:
"Limited in this area. Often substituted out during obvious passing situations. Has good size and strength in pass pro, but needs work with technique and is not overly aggressive in this area. Goes to the well too often with cut blocks. Displays adequate hands and can make the routine catches. However, lacks elite ball skills and can struggle with throws outside of the frame. Does not show great suddenness or polish with routes to consistently create separation from underneath routes."
Since Pierce managed to be targeted just 11 times last season, it's safe to assume that the Ravens don't have enough confidence in Pierce as a receiver to expand his opportunities in this area. Therefore, Rice can still be expected to receive the opportunities of an elite pass-catching running back, which puts the 81 targets he received last year as a floor of what to expect in 2013.
While Rice is the superior red-zone back and receiving option, there is cause for concern for Rice owners. Rice's production after contact significantly fell off in 2012. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Rice acquired 425 of his 1,621 total yards last season after being substantially contacted by a defender. Those 425 yards represent 26 percent of his yardage totals.
While his rushing yards after contact remained similar, his receiving production took the big hit in this metric. In 2012, he totaled just 81 of his 478 (17 percent) receiving yards after contact. In his three previous seasons, he had acquired almost 32 percent of his receiving yardage after contact. This change in Rice's performance after contact is significant and should not be dismissed. That said, because of Pierce's lack of adequate passing game skills, Rice's role as the clear primary back in the Ravens offense is safe for 2013. However, those of you in keeper and/or dynasty leagues are advised to sell Rice during the season if his yards after contact performance doesn't rebound, because the Ravens will have no choice but to look for a complete back to replace Rice in the future.