The diminutive back has been the definition of a workhorse for the Ravens, ranking in the top 10 for touches in the NFL in every season since 2009. He has also racked up more yards from scrimmage than any other player in that time frame, and his all-around brilliance has been instrumental to the Ravens’ continued success (via BaltimoreRavens.com).
Rice is one of the most versatile running backs in the league as he is an elite receiving threat out of the backfield with 17 more receptions than any other back since he entered the NFL. As magnificent as Rice has been, he has also accumulated a lot of mileage (1,527 touches) and we all know that the running back position takes its toll on a player’s body.
Enter Bernard Pierce.
The third-round pick out of Temple had a great rookie season and came on strong to end the year. He finished the regular season with an average of 4.9 yards per carry, and that number increased to 5.2 in the postseason. He also posted some eye-opening statistics, albeit with a fairly small sample size.
He was third in the NFL (at least 100 carries) in good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA), averaging 9.7 yards per carry when the run blocking held up (via ESPN, Insider required). He was also third (backs with at least 25 percent of their team’s rushes) in ProFootballFocus’ Elusive Rating and Yards after contact per attempt (membership required). Pierce was fifth in the NFL in broken tackle rate (at least 80 touches), forcing a missed tackle on 16.5 percent of his touches (via FootballOutsiders.com).
Obviously there are areas where Pierce needs to improve, like becoming more of a receiving threat (only 8 receptions last year) and in pass protection, but he has shown great potential as a runner. He repeatedly displayed a hard-nosed approach that is the perfect complement to Rice’s shifty running style.
I foresee Jim Caldwell getting Pierce involved in early-down running situations more than last year and giving Rice more responsibility in the aerial attack. Rice has been vocal about wanting to be a bigger part of the passing game and with the loss of Anquan Boldin, Caldwell will have to be creative to make up for Boldin’s production (via ESPN.com). One way he can do that is by using Rice more frequently as a receiver.
It will also be interesting to see whether the Ravens utilize any two-back formations and get Rice and Pierce on the field at the same time. Rice can be split out wide where he is a matchup nightmare for linebackers in open space (cue the video of the magical 4th-and-29).
Rice is still only 26 years old, but if the Ravens want to preserve him for the rest of his contract it would be in their best interest to decrease his workload. Expect Pierce to get a bigger chunk of the workload this year as the Ravens shift towards having what could be a scary one-two punch at running back.