Why More Touches for Bernard Piece Is Best Move for Ray Rice, Ravens Offense

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Why More Touches for Bernard Piece Is Best Move for Ray Rice, Ravens Offense
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice may be a three-time Pro Bowler, but sacrificing a percentage of his touches to emerging backup Bernard Pierce would benefit both Rice and the Ravens offense.

Rice, who will go over 1,800 career touches next season, could use the reduction of touches to extend his window of production. Pierce, a 2012 third-round pick, proved last season to be one of the game's hardest running backs to tackle. 

According to Garrett Downing of the Ravens official website, Pierce has an opportunity this summer to even up the percentages in 2013. 

In his breakdown of the Ravens' running back position before training camp, Downing wrote that Rice will be "pushed" by Pierce, while another impressive camp could "balance out" the touches between the two backs next season. 

Downing makes it clear that Rice is still the unquestioned No. 1 back in Baltimore. As a Pro Bowler in 2009, 2011 and 2012 and an All-Pro in '09 and '11, Rice has earned that designation. 

However, losing a few hits on his body wouldn't be the worst thing for the 26-year-old running back. 

Over his five regular seasons, Rice has averaged roughly 305 touches a year. Factor in the postseason, and that number jumps to over 350. 

While Rice has only cracked 300 rushing attempts once in his NFL career, he leads all running backs in receptions (311) since entering the league in 2008. His 1,527 total regular-season touches over the last five years is fifth-most at the position. 

Even in today's pass-happy NFL, the running back position still wears down at an accelerated pace. Players who produce past 30 years old are becoming more and more rare, especially for those who rack up touches early in their career.

By limiting his touches now, the Ravens can hopefully help slow down Rice's likely regression as he approaches age 30. 

Any decision to limit Rice's workload now likely became much easier when Pierce surprised as a rookie backup last season. 

In fact, Pierce—who rushed for 532 regular-season yards and another 202 in the postseason—was arguably better than Rice over several rushing parameters in 2012. 

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pierce finished last season with the sixth-best rushing grade in the NFL, despite receiving just 306 total snaps. Rice was 31st over 1,040. 

PFF's advanced stats reinforced that grade. In their "Elusive Rating," which factors in missed tackles and yards after contact to determine a running back's ability to create beyond the offensive line, Pierce finished at No. 3—even above Adrian Peterson, who was No. 4.  

PFF had Pierce down for 25 forced missed tackles on just 108 attempts and seven receptions. Rice forced 32 missed tackles but had 318 total touches. 

Pierce also produced 3.58 yards after contact, which was the third most in the NFL. Only Peterson and C.J. Spiller were better in 2012, while only four running backs over the last three seasons have finished with a higher average. 

The numbers at Football Outsiders add further ammunition for Pierce's case to receive more touches. 

According to the stat-gathering website, Pierce finished 2012 with the fifth-highest broken tackle rate among running backs with at least 80 touches. FO registered 19 broken tackles forced by Pierce over 115 touches, or a rate of 16.5 percent. Rice finished with 27 broken tackles over his 318 touches, or just 8.5 percent. 

While Pierce caught only seven passes during the regular season and struggled at times in pass protection, his production running the football should mean a spike in touches from his 7.1 per game in 2012. 

The Ravens appeared to be trending that way to wind down their Super Bowl season. 

Over the first 14 games, Pierce received roughly five attempts a game. Rice was right around 17 carries and four catches during the same span. 

The numbers started to shift over the final two games and the postseason. 

Pierce received 12.5 carries a game over the final six games (including the four-game playoff run), while Rice increased his carries to 18.5 a game. Even with Rice's workload trending up, Pierce saw more time in the Ravens offense. 

And the running-back split proved to be effective, as Baltimore averaged 29 points over the final six games. 

Heading into 2013, the Ravens should be expected to re-assume a similar workload for each back. 

Rice is and should be the unquestioned starter. He's a proven player in all facets of the game, and few have been more productive from an all-purpose standpoint since 2008. 

However, Pierce proved last season that he is plenty capable of producing elite numbers when given the opportunity. Pierce's increased role in the offense could also help keep Rice productive for longer, as he's received a high number of overall touches over the last five years. 

The Ravens have the welcomed problem of having two starting-quality running backs. By keeping the percentage of touches for each closer to even, Baltimore can extend the life of their star while also giving an emerging player more opportunities to impact the offense.

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