With the reinstatement of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice comes rampant speculation whether or not a team will pick him up and if so, which team. All it takes is a minute with Google to find a number of very reputable publications including the Lions in their speculation of a possible landing spot.
The Lions control their own destiny in the NFC North race but coming out as division champions almost surely means wining a week 17 matchup against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. With the way both teams have looked over the last few weeks, it feels like the Lions need some kind of boost to de-throne the Packers. But is Ray Rice that boost? Or any boost at all?
There is a natural connection with Lions head coach Jim Caldwell coaching with the Ravens for two years as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. Of course, that means Caldwell got an intimate look at Rice’s dreadful 2013 season in which Rice ranked 55th out of 55 qualified running backs (played minimum of 25% of snaps) according to Pro Football Focus.
Take away the off-field issue, as if that was possible, and Rice just isn’t a fit for the Lions for purely football reasons. Rice didn’t end up PFF’s worst rated running back last year because of a few bad games. Rice was consistently rated negatively game after game, a trend that actually stretches back to week 15 of the Ravens Super Bowl season the year before.
The running game has been a problem for the Lions this year and that fact is often used in support of the Lions being potential suitors for Rice. However, that kind of box score analysis fails to take into account where the Lions actually have problems. It isn’t so much that the Lions haven’t gotten what they need out of their running backs as it is the failure of the offensive line to run block consistently and effectively.
Using Pro Football Focus as a tool to separate the play of the running backs from the play of the offensive line clearly shows where responsibility for the failures in the running game rest. The Lions have an overall rating in the “rush” category, which PFF defines as the rating for “carrying the ball only”, of +1.8. That looks rather pedestrian as a cumulative season total but it is good enough for 12th overall.
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The picture for the Lions’ run blocking is much darker where the Lions are an overall -35.8, which ranks 29th. Separate out wide receivers, tight ends to isolate just the offensive line’s contribution and you get a -31.2.
Anyone trying to make the case that Ray Rice can help the Lions’ running game has two obstacles to clear. One, that Rice has shown a marked decline in his last season plus of football and two, that the Lions problems running the ball have much more to do with their offensive line than their running backs.
Where the two parties currently stand, Ray Rice needs the Detroit Lions much more than the Detroit Lions need Ray Rice.