Bernard Pierce darted around linebackers all spring, displaying a burst and elusiveness the Ravens' running back hopes to reprise this fall.
"I'm not slow," said Pierce at the conclusion of the Ravens' offseason practices. "I can definitely run."
Concentrating on his speed has been the primary emphasis for Pierce this offseason while preparing for his second NFL season after gaining 532 yards and averaging 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie.
When training camp launches later this month at team headquarters, a faster, more assured Pierce could pay significant dividends for the Ravens as they attempt to defend their Super Bowl title. As the primary backup to Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, Pierce is looking to emerge as a bigger scoring threat by finishing off long runs after scoring one touchdown last season when he occasionally flashed breakaway skills.
Although Pierce has bulked up 10 pounds since last season to 228 pounds, the native of Ardmore, Pa., has maintained a lean build. Pierce has always preferred running through defenders rather than around them, but is working on battling that natural tendency to plow straight ahead.
That doesn't mean that Pierce lacks acceleration, though. The 2012 third-round draft pick from Temple ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. And Pierce's 100-meter time of 10.6 seconds was the best in Pennsylvania when he was a senior at Glen Mills.
"Of course, any category I was down on last year I'm looking to improve on that this year," Pierce said. "Everything last year was more of a memory game, a thinking game where I wasn't always reacting on instinct right away. Now, I'm just getting back in the flow of it. I've leaned down, and I'm definitely in shape."
During his rookie season, Pierce built a reputation as a bruising downhill runner. His signature move was a punishing stiff arm, and he never fumbled.
Pierce provides a pounding complementary presence that contrasts with the smaller Rice's style as one of the top all-purpose backs in the game. However, a bulldozing approach isn't the only facet of Pierce's game.
During a 33-14 December victory over the New York Giants, Pierce gained a career-high 123 yards on 14 carries where he sprinted for a career-long 78-yard run before being tackled from behind by cornerback Jayron Hosley. And Pierce bolted away from the Indianapolis Colts on a 43-yard run during a playoff win where he led the Ravens with 103 yards.
"All positive from what I've seen on tape thus far," said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout for the Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. "He has a nice blend of explosiveness, balance and vision. It's rare to find guys with all three of those traits. He has home run potential, but he's also capable of lowering his pads and powering through arm tackles in short yardage situations. He looks to have the complete skill set to be an NFL starting runner but we need to wait and see if he can handle a consistent workload. His decisive, downhill running style reminds me of Matt Forte."
Pierce looked anything but hesitant as the season progressed, especially in December after offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron following a loss to the Washington Redskins. During the seven games following Cameron's dismissal, including the playoffs, Pierce rushed for a total of 444 yards.
During the Ravens' Super Bowl run, Pierce was even more effective with 202 yards on 39 carries in four playoff games for a 5.2 average per run.
"I'm definitely proud of what I did," Pierce said. "I was able to help and contribute to that ring."
Pierce finished 33rd overall in the NFL in rushing last season. Only five rookie running backs outgained Pierce, and four of them were the primary backs for their teams.
He ranked behind the Washington Redskins' Alfred Morris (1,613 yards), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Doug Martin (1,454 yards), the Cleveland Browns' Trent Richardson (950 yards), the Indianapolis Colts' Vick Ballard (814 yards) and the Philadelphia Eagles' Bryce Brown (564 yards), the backup to LeSean McCoy.
Although Pierce's workload is expected to increase this year after he averaged 6.75 carries per game as a rookie, the Ravens aren't planning to dramatically alter how they divide up the playing time.
Rice remains entrenched as the featured back.
"I'm comfortable spelling myself at any time," Rice said. "I've been healthy and blessed, and I know I can still play at a high level. Last year was a very long year, and us being able to take the blows off of each other and being able to spell each other without having to worry about having to miss a beat, was really, really key for us. There is only one ball to go around, but at the same time, you were seeing what we were able to do with the run game."
Last season, Rice and Pierce totaled 1,665 rushing yards to form one of the most productive running back combinations in the league.