One of the pleasant surprises of the 2012 Baltimore Ravens season was the play of rookie running back Bernard Pierce.
The third-round pick won the backup job almost by default during training camp, one that was marked by nagging injuries for the rookie from Temple. However when he began to hit his practice stride his presence was felt as a between-the-tackles runner to complement starter Ray Rice.
He was active for all 16 regular season games as well as the four postseason matchups.
It wasn’t until the second half of the season that Pierce began to develop into a dependable, talented backup running back, despite being a contributor all season long.
He finished the regular season with 532 rushing yards on 108 attempts. His yards-per-carry average of 4.9 was actually half a yard higher than Rice’s average of 4.4. Of course, Rice had 257 rushing attempts, 149 more than Pierce. Yet the numbers still show how much of an impact Pierce made in his rookie campaign.
His breakout game occurred right after the bye week, when he scored his lone touchdown of the season against the Cleveland Browns. After that game, Pierce saw his workload increase, as he had 78 rush attempts in Baltimore’s final eight regular season games.
In the playoffs, he had double-digit rush attempts in two games. He ran for 103 yards on 13 attempts in the Wild Card round against Indianapolis and ran the ball 12 times for 33 yards in the Super Bowl against San Francisco.
His role is likely to increase during his sophomore campaign in Baltimore.
Pierce consistent attacked the box and while he never showed the ability to break away for a score, he consistently gained large chunks of yardage and was rarely ever tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
Pierce’s talent could lead to less carries for Rice, who has seen his workload decline since 2010. After a career-high 307 carries in 2010, Rice had 291 in 2011 and then 257 in 2012. With the short shelf life of NFL running backs nowadays, the Ravens may stay cautious with Rice and continue to give him less carries.
If that’s the case, Rice may see his rush attempts drop to the 220-230 range, as Pierce’s role increases.
Pierce showed during his rookie year that he is a durable running back who can play through an injury, and he can be expected to see his carries total to flirt with the 150 range in 2013.
If Pierce progresses the Ravens could have one of the most dynamic running back duos in the NFL. Rice is a true all-around threat, who could see an increased role in the passing game in 2013. Pierce meanwhile, is a slashing, one-cut runner in the style of Arian Foster. It remains to be seen whether or not he’ll be a consistent contributor in the passing game.
Even though the Ravens signed Rice to a five-year deal prior to the 2012 season, he can’t be expected to play at a top-tier level for another four years. Rice has already shown signs that the unavoidable descent of an NFL running back has nearly arrived.
But with Pierce on the rise, the 2013 season could be the beginning of the talented second-year back’s bid to make Baltimore’s backfield a true one-two punch with similar playing time for both ball carriers.