JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew haven’t known each other very long. They connected at the Pro Bowl in Miami last year and spent time together during the NFL draft last April.
Their bond was instant.
And not solely because of their height. Both players lost their main role model growing up and were overlooked in the draft.
Now, two of the AFC’s top running backs have a friendly competition heading into Monday night’s matchup between Rice’s Baltimore Ravens (4-1) and Jones-Drew’s Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5).
“We sort of have a little battle,” Rice said. “Myself vs. Jones-Drew, let’s see who comes out the better running back that
Jones-Drew is third in the NFL with 572 yards rushing and two touchdowns. In one less game, Rice has 398 yards on the ground and two scores. Both players are considered dual threats out of the backfield, although the 5-foot-7 Jones-Drew has just nine receptions for 75 yards this season while the 5-foot-8 Rice has caught 21 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns.
“Both offenses run through those guys,” Jaguars linebacker Clint Session said. “They have good motors, they play every down, make a lot of plays. We’re going to have our hands full with him, but they’re going to have their hands full, too.”
The game seems like a mismatch on paper. The Ravens have scored at least 29 points in their four wins and have one of the league’s elite defenses. The Jaguars, meanwhile, have struggled to score all season and have the NFL’s worst offense.
But Jacksonville, which has lost five in a row, doesn’t want to get embarrassed in prime time. Players and coaches insist they’re close to getting on track with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert and a revamped defense, and playing in front of a national audience at home as huge underdogs would be the perfect place to start turning things around.
“We definitely have pride,” Session said. “We don’t need this game as a picker-upper or anything like that, but we will use it as one.”
In an effort to boost a sluggish offense, the Jaguars signed receiver Mike Sims-Walker on Wednesday. Sims-Walker spent four years in Jacksonville before signing with St. Louis in free agency.
Sims-Walker was released after dropping several passes. For the Jaguars, bringing him back was a low-cost move that could give Gabbert another target in the team’s inept passing game.
Gabbert has completed 49 percent of his passes for 717 yards, with four touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has been sacked 14 times.
His season probably won’t get any easier against the Ravens, who have harassed and harried young quarterbacks regularly under coach John Harbaugh.
Baltimore is 6-0 under Harbaugh against first- or second-year quarterbacks. The team was last beaten by a rookie signal-caller in October 2007, when Trent Edwards led the Buffalo Bills to a 19-14 victory.
“You don’t want any quarterback to do well, but I think we’re built in such a way that it’s hard to recognize what we’re doing,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got good players. That’s the main thing. I also think that we have players that understand the system.”
The Ravens are allowing an NFL-low 14.2 points a game and 4.5 yards per play, and they are forcing a league-high 2.8 turnovers a game. The defense has 15 sacks in five games and has held opponents to the league’s second-worst QB rating (65.9).
“They have like four or five guys on their team that can be All-Pros on defense,” Jones-Drew said. “It’s going to be another
challenge for us, but I think we’re up for it and we can’t wait to go up against them.”
Jones-Drew has gained at least 84 yards in every game this season, doing all he can against stacked fronts to take some of the pressure off Gabbert.
Rice knows the feeling. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been hit way more often than the team would like. Flacco has completed 51 percent of his passes for 1,278 yards, with seven touchdowns and four interceptions — not a whole lot better than Gabbert.
So both teams have relied on the ground game and defense. It’s just the way Jones-Drew and Rice want it.
They have persevered despite questions about whether they were too small to make it the NFL, especially at a position that arguably endures the most punishment. Each fell to the second round in the draft and have been steals for their team.
They bonded over that, as well as their stature and a somewhat similar upbringing. Rice’s father was killed in the street when Rice was a year old. Jones-Drew’s grandfather, who raised him, died watching him play in the Rose Bowl.
“Maurice Jones-Drew is a guy that I instantly connected with,” Rice said. “When you look at the life story and you look at the game, we are just two `undersized guys’ that have proven ourselves over and over that, not only are we great running backs, but we are here to stay.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)