Running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce figure to factor heavily… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
Throughout the 2012 season, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce took turns tearing through defenses. But in the second quarter of the Super Bowl, the Ravens sent the Pro Bowl running back and his rookie understudy onto the field together for the first time all season.
Rice lined up behind Pierce, who was playing the role of fullback. But soon Rice motioned out of the backfield to become a wide-out on the right side of the field. After the snap, quarterback Joe Flacco handed the ball to Pierce, who rumbled around left end and out of bounds.
The first-down play went for an innocuous 5-yard gain, but it gave a glimpse of a potential answer to two of the biggest question marks for the Ravens offense.
The Ravens are looking to replace a pair of playmakers after the offseason trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the season-ending hip injury suffered by tight end Dennis Pitta last month. They are also trying to figure out how to divvy up the snaps between Rice and Pierce, a backfield tandem that combined to rush for 1,675 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
So why not put them on the field at the same time?
"Obviously, this is a team now that is trying to figure out what their weapons will be," said Greg Cosell, an NFL analyst and a senior producer for NFL Films. "I don't know what they're doing, but I think it makes conceptual sense."
To pull it off, they need special, versatile athletes. The Ravens feel they have them in Rice and Pierce.
"There's a number of different things you could do with them," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said Monday. "That's the great thing about this game. It takes some creativity. But you do have to put them in the position where they do what they do best. Those guys have carried the ball extremely well, but they can also catch the ball, so you have to use their talents."
Still, in today's NFL, it is uncommon to see two featured running backs on the field at the same time.
The New Orleans Saints are a team that sometimes does it. They trotted out dual threat Darren Sproles and another running back on 67 snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Sproles was the team's movable chess piece, and he caught 75 passes for 667 yards and seven touchdowns, though he carried the ball just 48 times for 244 yards.
"I can do that," Rice said. "I can play that [Sproles] role, but I still like lining up eight yards deep."
Other teams utilized two running backs together more sparingly. The Buffalo Bills had 24 plays in 2012 when they used C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson together. And teams such as the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers used two running backs on only a handful of plays.
"Nothing is new in the NFL, so it's been done," Cosell said.
Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers were the class of the NFL in the early 1960s with a pair of Hall-of-Famers, Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, sharing the backfield. Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris both rushed for 1,000 yards for Don Shula's Miami Dolphins when they went a perfect 17-0 in 1972. And Bill Walsh sometimes utilized two backs to feature the pass-catching abilities of Roger Craig when his San Francisco 49ers won four Super Bowl titles during the 1980s.
So why don't teams still use two running backs together today? Chris Brown, who writes about the Xs and Os of football for Grantland, explains that it is "largely because the running game in the NFL has evolved away from the types of sweeps and traps favored by those Packers and Dolphins teams," who often operated out of split-back sets with a running threat lined up behind each of the quarterback's shoulders.
Back then, the plays were designed for two backs and often relied on misdirection to confuse defenses and open up running lanes. Now, teams favor zone-blocking schemes and power runs — the Ravens use both — and today's spread passing attacks usually allow for only one back on the field.
"That said, a team like the Ravens will look seriously at ways to get its best five skill position players on the field at the same time, even if that means two running backs," said Brown, who authored the book "The Essential Smart Football."
To make it work in the modern NFL, Brown says "one or preferably both of the running backs will need to be unselfish and must be able to do more than simply run the ball," including blocking for each other. Brown says it helps that the Ravens have one of the NFL's best pass-catching backs in Rice, who has averaged 62.2 receptions per season.
"He has excellent receiver skills," Ravens wide receivers coach Jim Hostler said. "He catches the ball extremely well. He can go inside, he has no fear and his transition from catch to run is unbelievable. So the ability to catch a ball and hit top gear [and] make somebody miss, not a lot of guys have that."