With ESPN.com reporting that Ray Rice has been suspended for the first two games of the 2014 NFL season, the Baltimore Ravens will have to rely on his backup, Bernard Pierce, to be the focus of the team's run game early on.
Pierce, a third-round selection by the Ravens in the 2012 draft, has carried the ball a total of 260 times for 968 yards and three touchdowns. He's also caught 27 passes for 151 yards. However, like Rice, Pierce struggled last year behind the league's worst run-blocking offensive line.
Pierce had 436 rushing yards on his 152 attempts in 2013, giving him an average of just 2.9 yards per carry.
The Ravens will need far improved production from him in the two games when he'll be the starter, especially with the team's first opponent this year being the Cincinnati Bengals, who were a top-10 defense against the run last season.
|Bernard Pierce Career Stats|
|Year||Atts.||Rush Yds.||YPC||Rush TD||Tgts.||Rec.||Rec. Yds.||Rec. TD|
With an improved offensive line, Pierce should have more opportunities to get carries that add up to meaningful yards.
It also helps that Baltimore's offense is now run by Gary Kubiak, whose system is more akin to what Pierce experienced in college at Temple. Speaking with Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, Pierce said, "It's pretty much the same thing. It's so much more simple [than last year]."
The first two games of the season give Pierce a chance to prove he can be a three-down running back, effective not just as a rusher but also a receiver and a blocker.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pierce played 414 offensive snaps last season, or 35.1 percent of the Ravens' total offensive snaps.
Of those snaps, 154 were in the run game and 158 in the pass game, while he was a run-blocker 34 times and a pass-blocker 60 times. Though his involvement in the passing offense has been on the rise—20 receptions in 2013 versus just seven in 2012—he's still a work in progress when it comes to blocking.
If he cannot get that area of his game up to par during training camp this year, then tight ends Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels will have to spend more time blocking during Weeks 1 and 2, closing them off as potential passing targets for quarterback Joe Flacco.
That could also result in Justin Forsett taking the field. Baltimore might have to alter its offense to accommodate Pierce's weakness, should it persist.
As head coach John Harbaugh told The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec on Sunday, "He's got about four weeks here to get ready to be the guy."
The real test for Pierce will be his ability to stay healthy, especially when given a starter's number of offensive snaps and carries for the first two weeks.
Though Pierce has never missed a regular-season game, he's had a number of injuries over the last two years—toe, back, thigh and ankle problems, a knee injury to begin last season and a torn rotator cuff to close it, the latter requiring surgery in the offseason.
The Ravens will need Pierce's services for the entire season. His work won't be done when Rice returns in Week 3.
Last year, Pierce had 152 carries to Rice's 214, and with a run-friendly coordinator like Kubiak, it's expected he'll get even more playing time in 2014. He will need to come out of the first two weeks with only minor wear and tear rather than another nagging injury.
The hope is that the run game will be business as usual with Pierce stepping in for Rice in Weeks 1 and 2—and that "business as usual" doesn't mean the dismal run performance from last season, with the Ravens totaling a franchise-low 1,328 rushing yards.
If the offensive line isn't significantly better than last season, then it won't matter who is carrying the football.
A one-cut runner like Pierce should thrive in Kubiak's system. If he can develop into the total package—running, receiving, blocking—during training camp, then the Ravens should not feel any ill effects having Pierce on the field instead of Rice.
It would also mean good things for Pierce's entire 2014 season—not just the two weeks when he'll be the starter.