After finishing with one of the league’s worst rushing offenses last year, the Baltimore Ravens face the challenge of trying to reassert their ability to run the ball as they head into the 2014 season. As shown in last Thursday night’s preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has undoubtedly made the running game a priority as a way to add some balance and versatility to his offense. While the personnel of the Ravens run game will only shift slightly with the addition of Lorenzo Taliaferro, keep an eye on the roles that each back may play within the system, as those may change compared to last year.
Ray Rice, despite his suspension, will still fill the role as the team’s first running back heading into the season, but does the running back have the ability to provide the Ravens with the solid running game they’ll look to have under Gary Kubiak’s offense? Additionally, what will Rice’s recent controversy and on-field play mean for the Ravens’ backup running back Bernard Pierce? Given the decrease of production the Ravens running game experienced last season, Pierce could emerge to fulfill a much more significant role within the Ravens offense.
Rice’s two-game suspension will force the Ravens to rely on Pierce at the start of the season, and this opportunity for Pierce could potentially shift the roles that each back fulfills within the Ravens running game. Pierce, a third-year player out of Temple, has somewhat quietly challenged Rice for a more significant role within the Ravens running game.
While Rice was the primary back last year, Pierce was able to perform at a level that offered the team an alternative for their rushing attack. Though his total yard production fell slightly between 2012 and 2013, Pierce’s workload increased as the 2013 season progressed, resulting in a career high 153 rushing attempts. Pierce was able to steadily increase his production as the 2013 season went on, and Rice’s inability to produce consistently not only changed the look of the Ravens run game last season, but also asks the question of what it will look like this upcoming season.
Gary Kubiak is entering his first season as the Ravens offensive coordinator, and the veteran coach has already begun to try to bolster the lackluster running game he has inherited. Just last year the Ravens run game ranked 30th in the NFL, averaging only a meager 83 yards per game. Just a year before, in 2012, they averaged almost 120.
Kubiak, who will instill a West Coast-style offense, will need an effective run game to try to balance some of the fire power their passing game offers. Rice’s rushing production has decreased each of the last two years, and between last year and 2012 it plummeted by nearly 500 yards. Additionally, last year was the first time in five years Rice didn’t eclipse the 1,000 yard mark — in fact, he wasn’t even close as he tallied only 660 yards.
That being said, should we expect this downward trend to continue for Rice? Between his declining production and his daunting, controversy-filled offseason, I simply don’t see Rice being able to put up the numbers the Ravens will need for them to have a threatening, well-rounded offense. I think the door is open for Bernard Pierce to take on the brunt of the running game. He’ll get exposure while Rice is out for the first two games of the season, and if Pierce continues to improve I can see Kubiak giving him more and more touches as the season moves on.
Additionally, rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro will add a new dynamic to a Ravens running game in need of some variety and versatility. While not a threat to steal any jobs, Taliaferro was still impressive in his first preseason game with the Ravens, recording a team-high 71 yards on 13 carries. With Rice and Pierce likely getting most of the carries, keep an eye on Taliaferro to emerge as a third-down and/or short yardage back. The rookie has the ability to be a goal line threat and could help the Ravens in short-yardage situations. It will be interesting to see how the team utilizes all three backs in their remaining preseason games.