BENGALS WLB VONTAZE BURFICT VS. RAVENS RB RAY RICE
The first full-out matchup pitting the AFC North's most versatile weapon (Rice) against one of the division's emerging Pro Bowl-type two-way defenders when the Bengals head to Baltimore for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the run-starved Ravens.
The Bengals are wary of the numbers coming out of Baltimore. How Rice is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. How his longest run is 14 yards. How the Ravens ran out of the pistol formation in last Sunday's loss in Cleveland five times for five yards. How teams like the Browns are daring Baltimore to run on them while they worry that quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens can't take them up on it with the NFL's fourth-worst rushing offense.
"Doesn't matter," says Bengals right end Michael Johnson. "He's still a very good player."
The Bengals can be forgiven for not buying. Since 2011, they've allowed just eight runs of plus-30 yards and the 5-foot-8, 212-pound Rice has shot through for three of them. Since Mike Zimmer arrived in 2008 as defensive coordinator, the Bengals have allowed five touchdown runs of 40 yards or more and Rice has two of them. In the last three games that have mattered against Cincinnati, Rice has averaged 6.7 yards per his 54 carries. Over the last three years the Bengals have allowed seven touchdown runs of at least 20 yards and Rice has two.
"You need good angles, good pursuit, you have to grab cloth and keep your feet moving," Johnson says. "He always goes forward. Very seldom do you see him take a hit and go backwards. He's always going forward and very low to the ground."
Johnson watched Rice rip off runs of 70, 59 and 51 yards two years ago in the two games against the Bengals and it comes on the heels of one of Cincinnati's sloppier games against the run. Miami's Lamar Miller had one of those plus-30s with a 41-yarder. The only way to prevent the long one by Rice is to make him beat 11 defenders.
"He's a good cutback runner. If you over-pursue, he'll make you pay," Johnson says. "If you don't have enough guys getting to the ball and you have him in a one-on-one situation, he'll make you pay. You need to get all 11 hats to the ball. And when you get there, pull cloth."
If Rice is struggling, Burfict is thriving as he continues to lead the NFL tackles. But like all crowns, it's a bit uneasy. For the second straight week it looks like middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (concussion, knee) won't play and for the first time in his career Burfict is going to start with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins (ACL) not in the lineup.
"Rice is definitely the key with all the receivers that Flacco has lost and it's been the formula how teams have stopped them; stop the run," says Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham. "It's Burfict's first game without Geno in front of him consuming blockers. Hopefully, the guy that is replacing Geno gets those blockers and lets Burfict do his thing."
Rice strained his hip early in the season and while he's telling everybody he's fine, he's clearly not.
"I don't think he's running as well; he's not quite the same looking at him," Lapham says. "The fact they're not running the ball, there are a lot of reasons. They're not blocking well and Ray Rice to me doesn't look like the same Ray Rice physically."
The Ravens almost look as if they've given up on the run with most of their plays coming out of a spread formation. But head coach John Harbaugh says they have to run teams out of those soft looks. Or better yet, pass more to loosen them up.
"They're playing us with seven people in the box against a spread formation. That is single-high. That's Cover 3 and Cover 1 – that's what we're getting," Harbaugh says, "We're getting some off, we're getting some press. That's a run defense. So, Cleveland played us in a run defense pretty much the whole game. We've got to get them out of that run defense. That's our job. And to do that, we've got to be good and precise in the pass game. We've got to open up that coverage a little bit and force them to back off. "
The Bengals are not coming off a good game against the run. The Dolphins gouged them for 142 yards rushing in the first half and linebackers coach Paul Guenther says it's pretty simple why.
"We didn't come out right away and take control of the line of scrimmage last week," he says. "We didn't do a good job shooting our hands and extending our arms and getting off blocks. When the ball gets to the perimeter, we have to crack and replace and play with better run force on the perimeter. We have to come out guns blazing from the first snap of the game."
Much has been made of the Ravens blocking scheme now that there is a lot of spread and pistol formations. But Guenther says the Ravens have been using zone blocking concepts for a couple of years now and Rice says it's the same stuff.
"We've tried different things, but at the same time, it's still the same thing. It's not a different scheme; it's not a different offense. We're running an offense that fits our personnel right now," Rice says. "At the same time, we're not taking the credit; the other side can take it as well, too. Look at the defense that we're facing; I'm not taking away from them. Could we have executed it better? That's not what I'm trying to say. What I'm trying to say is some other side, especially if you want to go back to last week … look at Cleveland's front. They've got a top defense in the NFL right now. That's not easy to run the ball against a tough front like that. We've done it before, and that's the thing that we've got to get our hat back on. We've done it before. We've just got to continue to keep working and that's what we'll continue to do."
Burfict wasn't in the lineup yet as a rookie in last year's opener when Rice busted for nearly seven yards per carry on just 10 carries, but their brief meeting in the season finale that turned out to be a fifth preseason game displayed the tenacity and intensity the duo are going to bring to the matchup.
Rice played only nine snaps before resting for his Super Bowl run. But before he left he and Burfict got into after the whistle and they had to be separated. But not before Burfict seemed to usher in a new Bengals edge standing up to Baltimore's perennial playoff swag and then walking away while two personal foul flags flew against the Ravens.
Now Burfict leads the NFL in tackles and Rice is looking for his Pro Bowl explosiveness. As usual, Rice is second on the Ravens in catches, so Burfict will again have to be active against the pass. But in the end, the NFL's leading tackler and the other 10 guys have to get him to the ground the first time.
"Pull cloth," Johnson says.