In their 17 years as an NFL franchise, the Baltimore Ravens have established a name for themselves as a team that is consistently good at running the ball. Nearly every season, the purple and black have at the very least a 1,000-yard rusher, if not a Pro Bowler who is among the league's best runners.
The 2013 Ravens look to continue that tradition with Ray Rice set for his fifth season as the team's starting running back. Rice has made three Pro Bowls in four seasons and he is now widely regarded as one of the top running backs in the game today.
Rice is a small running back, though, and part of the reason he's stayed so good over these four years has been the assistance of a high quality backup. Bernard Pierce will try to fill that role in 2013 although he totaled 532 rushing yards as a backup last year, showing that he has the potential to become something special. As good as Rice is, Pierce could be in line for an increased workload this season.
Rounding the depth chart are backups Anthony Allen and Damien Berry. Both players are fighting for a third-string spot and/or extended playing time on special teams.
Here's an extended look at the Ravens' running back situation, with a look at what each back has to offer to the Ravens offense.
Based on his previous level of play, Rice has the starting running back job locked down. Despite his small stature, the Ravens have done an excellent job keeping him from wearing out too quickly. He's actually declined in carries over the last three years, going from 307 in 2010 to 291 in 2011 and finally to 257 in 2012.
In terms of rushing output, 2012 was a slight decline from 2011, which was easily the best season of Rice's career. Rice dropped from 1364 rushing yards to 1143 rushing yards and from 12 rushing touchdowns to nine rushing touchdowns.
Now it's safe to say that the change was largely because of the back behind Rice on the depth chart. Ricky Williams was respectable in 2011 but he only got 444 rushing yards on the season with two rushing touchdowns, while never topping 100 rushing yards in a game. In 2012, Pierce had 532 rushing yards and a stretch of games late in the year where he got over 10 carries.
The preservation of Rice is best helped by a physical "bruiser" running back that can come in and give Rice some time to rest. For Rice's first three years, Willis McGahee filled that role, and now it looks like Pierce can become that kind of running back.
An area where Rice could actually see an increase in production is in the passing game. In 2012, Rice had 61 catches for 478 receiving yards. While good numbers, they were not as good as either his 2009 season or 2011 season, both of which saw him top 700 receiving yards and 70 receptions.
The departure of Anquan Boldin could lead to Rice lining up in the slot and catching more passes. As 4th-and-29 showed in San Diego last season, Rice is dangerous getting the ball even if it's just from a screen pass.
Whatever happens, it's clear Rice will be a major contributor to the offense next season. He will likely continue to run at a Pro Bowl level while also helping the receiving game by catching more passes.
Despite running for 1,481 yards and 27 touchdowns during his junior season at Temple, Pierce dropped all the way to the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. The Ravens traded up to get him, with the hope that he could replace the recently retired Williams as Rice's main backup.
It was a slow start for Pierce, who saw only 30 carries during his first seven games. Yet even with the minimal chances he was getting, Pierce still averaged 4.03 yards after contact of those 30 carries. He also showed a natural ability for forcing missed tackles, forcing three of them during a four-carry performance against the Dallas Cowboys.
The insertion of Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator in Week 15 led to Pierce getting more carries. His best game was in Week 16 against the New York Giants where he got 14 carries and 123 yards, including a career-long 78-yard run.
Pierce's assent continued in the playoffs. While Rice fumbled twice in the Wild Card Round, Pierce had 103 rushing yards on 13 carries. Admittedly, that game was more of an anomaly, as Rice would out-perform Pierce for the rest of the playoffs, but still the late-season increase in carries for Pierce could very easily carry into the 2013 season.
Pierce's hard-nosed running style has proven to be a great compliment to Rice's shifty style. As the end of last season showed, the pairing showed well that perhaps Pierce could push toward making the rush offense a one-two punch as opposed to just being the change-of-pace backup.
It may be premature to say that Pierce will overtake Rice on the depth chart. However, as a great runner with a high ceiling, Pierce should get increased opportunities in 2013, and he should be able to improve upon his numbers from 2012.
A seventh-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Allen has struggled so far to get a good grasp on the backup running back position. Still, he was active for five games his rookie season and he even got eight yards on three carries.
2012 started out even more dishearteningly for Allen, who was cut after the preseason. He did return to the team later in the year and began carving out a niche for himself as a special teams player.
Allen also got his first extended look as a running back in the meaningless season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals. While splitting time with Pierce, Allen gained 41 yards on 10 attempts and also scored his first career touchdown.
It seems clear that with both Pierce and Rice ahead of him on the depth chart, Allen's future with the team is primarily on special teams. Allen is particularly good at blocking kick returns, and he's one of the underrated reasons for Jacoby Jones's success at the position. This will likely be where Allen spends the majority of 2013, barring injuries of some sort.
Despite having spent two years with the Ravens, Berry has by far the least experience of the four running backs on the roster. A rookie free agent in 2011, Berry spent the entirety of that season on the practice squad.
The retirement of Ricky Williams in 2012 opened the door for Berry to get in on the competition for backup running back. Despite a decent preseason showing though, Berry lost out to Pierce for the coveted spot.
A few weeks later, Berry was lost for the 2012 season with a neck injury sustained in the preseason finale against the St. Louis Rams. He spent the rest of the year on injury reserve.
At this point, Berry's best-case scenario seems to be third-string running back. He could also follow Allen's lead and try to become a contributor on special teams.