Unknowns remain for Ravens' running game after strong start

  • Ravens running backs Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro work against each other during a drill during training camp.
Ravens running backs Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro… (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore…)
August 14, 2014|Mike Preston

The Ravens' running back situation has progressed better than most expected throughout training camp, but few can predict how it will unfold during the 2014 season.

Veteran Ray Rice is listed as the starter but he will be suspended for the first two games. Third-year player Bernard Pierce will take his place, and even though Rice is expected to return as the starter, what happens if Pierce has two dominating performances?

Pierce, after all, is a better fit for the Ravens running game than Rice. He is a "downhill" runner, as opposed to Rice, who is more of a slash, cutback type.

Even Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak doesn't know how this will play out.

"As long as they're gaining some yards, I'm OK," Kubiak said when asked if he preferred a certain style of runner. "We preach a lot about running tracks and one-cut and getting downhill, but I can't say that. … I've had all kinds [of running backs]. I've been through [Clinton] Portis, who was more of a small, speed guy. I've been through the big back, like a Mike Anderson-type of guy.

"We have a little bit of both on our team right now with Bernard and Lorenzo [Taliaferro] — big guys — and then the other guys that are working, of course Ray. They all fit with what we're doing, and maybe sometimes one guy is a better wide-zone runner than a tight-zone runner. That's for us to figure out."

Rice is the team's most complete back, but Justin Forsett is the most explosive. Pierce has size but has yet to prove he can play consistently without an injury. The most interesting is Taliaferro, the rookie out of Coastal Carolina.

He has size and quick feet. Once he learns to lower his pads instead of running straight up, he could become a major weapon, at least a fourth-quarter bruiser who can finish off games.

"In practice, he's done some good stuff, but he has found another gear," Kubiak said. "We walked in the stadium a few weeks ago for practice [and] he played at a different level, at Navy he did, and the other night against San Francisco.

"He just has this look in his eyes of confidence for a very young player. Our whole team sees it. He's pushing guys and we're gaining confidence in him. It'll sort itself out here over these next few weeks."

Suggs gets freedom

Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees defended Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs for freelancing during games, especially when Suggs takes that hard run inside.

But after the midway point last season, more teams started taking advantage of Suggs' gambles, especially the Cincinnati Bengals in the final regular-season game.

This season, though, the Ravens might move Suggs around more by design.

"It could be a little bit of both, but we do have some calls where we want to take him inside," Pees said. "The one thing I learned a long time ago coaching inside 'backers — and especially with [defensive] line — if you line up the same way all the time, a guy is going to tee off on you.

"I think you have to let players go. Lawrence Taylor went a lot. Pepper Johnson used to tell me Lawrence would [say], 'Just have my back.' And the guy is a Pro Bowler, one of the greatest that ever played, so is Suggs. And I think once in a while you also have to let them be a football player. Now they can't do it all the time, but sometimes I think you also have to have a little allowance."

Big play receiver

Ahh, I wonder who is going to be the Andre Johnson in the offense this season.

When Kubiak was the head coach in Houston, Johnson was his big play, Pro Bowl receiver. Johnson was always a deep threat, but could run that 15- to 18-yard comeback pattern as well as anybody in the NFL.

Because of his speed, Torrey Smith would appear to be that player, but he isn't a strong route runner. He will probably be used more to clear out, so Johnson's role will probably be played by Steve Smith.

Steve Smith doesn't have great speed but runs good routes and has exceptional hands.

"We're going to be more balanced just naturally because we have Steve on one side and Torrey on the other," Kubiak said. "The way I was geared [in Houston], a lot of things were geared right toward Andre for those specific reasons. But I really like the fact that we can balance the field with our two receivers. I don't know how it's going to end up, hopefully somebody is making a lot of plays. They can both do it."

More screens

One major improvement in the offense so far are the screens. The Ravens have gotten the ball to running backs and tight ends while quarterback Joe Flacco has done a good job of developing them.

Last year, even with Flacco under great duress, there weren't a lot of screens or draws to slow the pass rush.

Scott loves Baltimore

In his new gig as a commentator/analyst on CBS, former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said Baltimore will always carry favor with him.

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