Asking backs to take every carry isn't plausible in today's NFL, as the potential injury risk increases with fatigue. The defenders in the NFL are amongst the best and most powerful athletes in the world, and they force opposing runners to exert maximum effort on each rush.
Gone are the days when a physically imposing back could easily steamroll an undersized linebacker, as even smaller linebackers pack quite the wallop.
Bernard Pierce has spelled Rice all season and has been effective in the role. On 108 regular-season carries, Pierce accumulated 532 yards for an average of 4.9 yards per rush.
The Temple alum had a successful rookie season and has the chance to cap it off with a Super Bowl.
The shifty and decisive running of Pierce has been most effective on second down, as he averaged 6.3 yards per carry on the down during the regular season. Essentially, Pierce quickly hits holes, which is why he is effective on unpredictable second-down run calls.
Making his performance in the AFC Championship Game more impressive, Pierce was hampered by a bone bruise in his right knee and still managed to average 5.8 yards per rush.
Rice said the following in regards to Pierce's toughness after the AFC Championship Game: (via Aaron Wilson BaltimoreSun.com)
He's the toughest man on earth. That's my man. We knew it would be tough sledding. They always do a great job against the run, but we just had to execute. Having a dual threat really helps out.
The quotes from Rice speak to Pierce's toughness and to the current state of the running back position in the NFL. One of the league's premier running backs, Rice is not openly acknowledging how important Pierce is because he knows his job is not in danger. Rather, Rice realizes Pierce is integral in his own success as a runner.
Against the 49ers, the Ravens will need Pierce to spell Rice effectively in order to maintain a solid rushing attack.
Without a strong ground game, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco would be forced to win the game single-handedly with his arm. Against the 49ers' stout defense, the odds would be stacked against the Ravens if they have to depend on just Flacco.
Expect Pierce to carry the ball between six and 10 times against the Niners. His success can be used as a barometer for the Ravens' offensive success.
While Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore will take the majority of the carries, the few touches LaMichael James receives have the potential to change the game.
Due to his blazing speed, James is a home-run threat each time he touches the ball.
In the NFC Championship Game, James found the end zone in the second quarter after taking the handoff on a read-option play. Plays such as the read-option highlight James' skill set the best, as he is most dangerous when he can find some open space.
There is also a chance we will see James return a kickoff or two, as he returned 14 of them in the regular season. Jim Harbaugh will utilize James' home-run ability when it's prudent and the pace and score of the game will factor into the decision.
Expect James to touch the ball between four and eight times, as his big-play ability could wind up making the difference.