This is Part 5 in my 10-Part Second-Year Running Back Series, using NFL Game Rewind to analyze each sophomore back's rookie-season tape. For the Lamar Miller, David Wilson, Bryce Brown, and Vick Ballard writeups, click here:
Pierce generated Arian Foster comparisons coming out of Temple for an alleged one-cut slashing style, without Foster's passing-game chops. Pierce tallied only 19 receptions in his college career and was targeted just 11 times as an NFL rookie, so that's an obvious area in which he must improve. Pierce's ball-carrying role became significant during the 2012 stretch run, however, and Football Outsiders charted him with the fifth-best broken tackle rate in the league (16.5 percent). Starter Ray Rice's broken tackle rate was 8.5, albeit on a much larger sample size.
Pierce's uptick in usage coincided with the Ravens' December firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who was replaced by former Colts coach Jim Caldwell. Caldwell will call Baltimore's plays this year. For this column, I re-watched and charted every play on which Pierce handled the ball from Week 14 on -- an eight-game stretch including the playoffs and consisting of 92 touches.
In January, Caldwell told CBS' Phil Simms he "almost feels the ground shake" when Pierce runs, and I'm not sure that's a ridiculously hyperbolic statement. Some running backs have quick feet. Pierce has powerful feet with muscle-bound thighs and calves, and he runs with exceptional leg drive. He's powerful enough to move piles. When sprung into open space, I saw Pierce shield would-be tacklers with a violent stiff arm, tacking on extra yardage. He is a physical finisher, driving through defenders, relentlessly falling forward, and maxing out runs.
Pierce did his best work out of the straight I-formation and offset I with punishing lead blocker Vonta Leach in front of him. (Leach, by the way, has a whole lot left. The Ravens hope rookie Kyle Juszczyk can be an adequate fill in this year.) Of the 92 Pierce touches I charted, 65 came out of some version of the I formation. He gained 338 yards on those plays, good for a 5.2-yard average.
A hard-charging, no-nonsense downhill runner, Pierce's initial burst is not quite comparable to fellow sophomore backs Lamar Miller, David Wilson, and Bryce Brown's. But I would describe it as adequate. When Pierce got a full head of steam, his long speed was deceptive. On his longest run of the season -- a 78-yarder against the Giants -- Pierce got all the way down to the one-yard line before slot corner Jayron Hosley narrowly caught him from behind. Although Pierce is much more of an inside than outside runner, I don't think his speed and acceleration are negatives. NFL Films' Greg Cosell once told me speed to the hole is much less critical than speed through the hole. And Pierce is plenty fast through the hole.
I do question the pre-draft comparison of Pierce to Arian Foster. Whereas Foster is a laterally gifted slasher, Pierce is a north-south power back who relies on vision, patience, and tackle-breaking ability. Pierce flashed a small inside jump-cut move and sees the field well enough to quickly diagnose and exploit cutback lanes, but there's not much elusiveness to his running.
Pierce's 2012 passing-game work obviously provides a small sample, but he secured eight of his 11 pass targets on the season and seemed plenty comfortable catching the ball. Pierce did have one drop, on a swing pass thrown by backup Tyrod Taylor in Week 17 at Cincinnati. The two other unsecured targets came on throwaways by Taylor and Joe Flacco; uncatchable passes chucked in Pierce's vicinity to avoid sacks. Pierce secured 8-of-9 catchable targets during his rookie year.
Overall, I emerged from this tape examination very impressed by Bernard Pierce. I like him better than I did before. I admire Pierce's willingness to sacrifice his body to maximize gains. He plays the game hard, and at times it looked like it genuinely hurt defenders to tackle him. While Pierce lacks Wilson, Miller, and Brown's vertical up-field explosion, he ran with more consistent power and leg drive than all three. He was unfazed by arm-tackle attempts. When Pierce entered the game, he seemed to inject energy into the Ravens' offense.
I'd be fascinated to see how opponents might react if Pierce got an opportunity to string together three or four straight games of 20-plus carries, putting his power on game-plan film. I bet we'd see some second- and third-level defenders flinch before tackling him, or even take a pass altogether. Pierce runs with that kind of power and violence. I'd also like to see what Pierce could do with an extended opportunity to get into a rhythm. I think he could wear down a defense and -- without question -- be a consistent, chain-moving back and the foundation of an NFL running game.
Assuming Ray Rice stays healthy in 2013, I think we can expect Pierce to play a weekly role similar to his during the 2012 stretch run. He'll be a threat for 6-13 touches per game, handling change-of-pace-back duties behind Baltimore's more versatile starter. While Rice's starting job is not in jeopardy, this would be a fairly significant drain on his workload and fantasy value. Pierce is simply too good not to play a consistent week-to-week role. If Rice got injured and Pierce received a chance to start football games, I would expect him to produce like a borderline RB1.