Trio of backs battling for Ravens' backup spot
OWINGS MILLS — Anthony Allen bulled ahead, plunging into the line of scrimmage with his helmet and shoulder pads pointed forward and ready for collisions with linebackers.
It was a minicamp carry emblematic of his traditional head-first running style.
In another sequence, Damien Berry cut sharply away from pursuit as he displayed a touch of elusiveness to slash outside for extra yards.
And rookie Bernard Pierce took the handoff and made one sharp cut to bounce outside for a first down, appearing to be the most comfortable and experienced in the Baltimore Ravens’ zone running scheme.
The trio of running backs is auditioning to become the primary backup to Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, the Ravens’ unsigned franchise player.
Although all had their moments during spring minicamps and organized team activities and Allen took the greater portion of the workload with the first-team offense in Rice’s absence, no one has separated himself from the pack yet.
The true competition will launch in earnest at training camp later this month at the Ravens’ training complex. That’s when there will be full-contact drills, and a proving ground of preseason games to follow.
“I’m ready to come in and compete,” Berry said. “Competition brings the best out of all of us. If you’re going to be great, you have to compete.”
Following Ricky Williams’ abrupt retirement after last season, the Ravens’ backfield was left bereft of any accomplished depth behind Rice.
Where Williams rushed for 10,009 career yards and 66 touchdowns in a dozen seasons, Allen is the only one of the three backup candidates to actually touch the football in an NFL regular-season game.
However, the former seventh-round draft pick from Georgia Tech rushed for only eight yards on three carries as he saw limited action in five games last season.
Just based on seniority, Allen has a slight edge in the competition heading into camp.
“With Ray not being here, we’ve all got to work even harder and stay sharp in our technique and our assignments,” Allen said. “It’s a challenge and an opportunity for all of us.”
As a rookie, Allen battled conditioning issues and a lingering hamstring problem.
Allen also had to make adjustments from playing in a triple-option offense where he lined up just a few yards away from the line of scrimmage and was rarely used as a receiver.
He rushed for 3,036 career collegiate yards and 33 touchdowns, including his production from two seasons at Louisville before transferring to Georgia Tech.
Allen said he’s not bothered by the Ravens drafting Pierce.
“Nothing gets easier,” he said. “That’s how the league is. I got to go out and compete for the job.”
“Bernard’s good. All of the backs we brought in are real good kids, good backs and they’re really smart.”
To prepare for this season, Allen has lost a considerable amount of body fat as he restructured his 230 pounds.
He looks much slimmer and quicker than a year ago.
“I just rearranged the weight a little bit,” Allen said. “I don’t know how much body fat I lost. I’m the same weight. I’m way leaner, though. I picked up my conditioning. I never ate beef or pork, but I’m cleaning up the things I eat.”
“I’m not putting as much salt on things, as much mayonnaise. I’m not using as many condiments or cheese. I cut out fried foods. I feel a lot better. I’m going through drills way faster. My recovery is so much faster.”
Allen still doesn’t run with much vision, but he does have power and size working in his favor.
And offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has noticed some encouraging signs in Allen.
“I haven’t looked at it from a conditioning standpoint, because I thought he was in pretty good condition last year,” Cameron said. “Obviously, he had a hamstring injury, but we’ve kind of felt he has been a good football player since the day we drafted him.
“He came in and did extremely well for a guy that was playing fullback and has moved to tailback, a guy that we think can play all three downs. I see nothing but upside. I see nothing but positives for him. He is another guy that has had a good offseason.”
The Ravens invested a third-round draft pick in Pierce, selecting him 84th overall.
And he's signed to a four-year contract worth $2.655 million, including a $555,944 signing bonus.
The 6-foot, 218-pounder ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.
He demonstrated a nose for the end zone at Temple, rushing for 3,570 yards and 53 touchdowns.
Of the three backs, the Ravens have the greatest investment in Pierce. And he seems the most suited for full-time duty if Rice was unavailable.
“I felt real comfortable,” Pierce said. “The mental aspect is a lot bigger impact than the physical. I try to be a perfectionist. I didn’t want to get on the field and make a bad impression and from there it’s downhill.
“I try to be perfect in everything, pass protection, run, substitution, everything, routes. I made sure I got into the playbook good so there were no mental errors.”Pierce tweaked his hamstring during a minicamp, but has already recovered from the minor injury.
So far, though, he’s made an impression on the coaching staff despite limited action.
“The one thing is you can see why we drafted him,” Cameron said. “I can’t wait until the pads come on. I think that becomes the true test for any young player, but he is physical, smart and fast.”“Now, he just needs to keep learning the system, listen to what [running backs coach] Wilbert Montgomery is asking him to do, listen to the guys in the room. One thing that is obvious is that he is a good football player.”
The Ravens acquired Berry as an undrafted free agent from the University of Miami last year, and he spent the entire season on the practice squad.
He spent the entire offseason working out under the supervision of strength and conditioning coach Bob Rogucki and has bulked up to 223 pounds, up from 211 pounds last year.
“I stayed here, just stayed after it,” said Berry, who rushed for 1,515 yards and 13 touchdowns in college. “I’ve gotten some good reps with the ones, which has given me a good opportunity to compete, to be seen.
“I’m way ahead of the curve than where I was last year, way ahead of it. There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know last year. This year, it makes the game a lot easier.”
Added Cameron: “He has gotten bigger, he has gotten stronger. You can tell that he has done a ton of work. He has done a great job in our weight room. I just love his approach. He’s another guy that I think is going to shine when the pads come on because he is big, fast and physical. He likes football. It means a lot to him. I think we’ll be pleased. I think he is primed to have a great preseason, and then we’ll go from there.”
Williams rushed for 444 yards and two touchdowns last season working behind Rice.
The Ravens would be thrilled if Allen, Pierce or Berry approached those numbers.
“They’re all doing really well,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They’ve worked really hard and are in great shape. They understand the tracks they’re running. We have a group of running backs we’re excited about.”