Ravens expect to look to entire running back group against Steelers

September 09, 2014|By Jon Meoli, The Baltimore Sun

A day after running back Ray Rice's contract was terminated, Ravens coach John Harbaugh reaffirmed his belief in Bernard Pierce, who didn't touch the ball after fumbling on his sixth carry in Sunday's season opener.

"Bernard has been very good. He has a great attitude, good demeanor," Harbaugh said. "You don't lose faith in a player because of a bad play. Bernard is still on his way to becoming, I would say, a very good player, and I've been saying that all along.

"I have the utmost confidence in him. … He's not going to be perfect — none of us are — but Bernard Pierce is a big part of what we're doing, just as are Justin [Forsett and] Lorenzo [Taliaferro]."

The group was initially expected to carry the team through a 12-day, two-game stretch during Rice's initial suspension for domestic violence. But Rice's release left them as the only active running backs on a team whose offensive overhaul centered on a strong running game.

Pierce spent two years behind Rice, and entered his third season as the starter with 968 yards and three touchdowns in two seasons. He had just six carries in Sunday's 23-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and amassed 14 yards rushing before he fumbled to give the Bengals the ball at the Ravens' 23-yard line.

Harbaugh said Sunday that it wasn't a health issue that caused the second-quarter fumble to be Pierce's last carry of the game, and stressed how the coaching staff is "not too enamored with fumbles."

The coach clarified Tuesday that "there was no talk about sitting Bernard down during the game."

"It's just [that] Justin was rolling," Harbaugh said. "He was making good decisions, he was picking up pass protection. We had confidence in him at that time more so than the other running backs."

Forsett finished with 70 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, with 63 yards coming in the second half. He also caught five passes for 14 yards, and said Monday that he was ready for the increased role after playing an unexpectedly big part in the second-half comeback.

"I'm ready to seize the moment," Forsett said. "My job is to go out and perform when my number is called. I'm excited about the opportunity… and hopefully [there will] be some great things to come on Thursday night."

Pierce did not speak to the media Monday or Tuesday, but said Sunday that Harbaugh addressed the fumble with him during the game.

"He just said, 'Being a running back in this league, if you're trying to stay in this league, you can't fumble the ball.' " Pierce said. "And I agree with him 100 percent."

Harbaugh said Monday that Pierce and Forsett will play a lot against Pittsburgh, and added Tuesday that he would let whoever is playing best dictate who gets the carries.

"It's always been that way," Harbaugh said. "You go with guys that are making plays at those positions. … You go with the guys who are playing the best at the time, but probably more so at running back than any position, when you have a number of guys kind of in the same spot."

Taliaferro, who was on the field for three pass plays Sunday and didn't have a carry, said he doesn't know what his role is going to be with Rice gone. He said the feeling in the running back room hadn't changed much since Rice's release.

"We're all still just competing and trying to get each other better," Taliaferro said. "Things are going to be different, but it's all about the team."

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk said all three running backs have enjoyed "a ton of reps" in the preseason and during regular season practices. He believes a renewed commitment to the running game would spark its success.

"From Day 1, Coach Kubiak talked about running the football and being a more physically team and having that be our mentality and identity," Juszczyk said. "I think you'll see more of that going forward."

Throughout the offseason, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and the team's skill players spoke of an offense that would rely on the ground game, and use play-action fakes to pick up big plays through the air.

That played out in the preseason, when the team rushed 156 times for a league-high 684 yards in four games. But the Ravens' running backs had 17 carries, and quarterback Joe Flacco dropped back to pass 62 times.

"I think last week, obviously, wasn't a great example of what we're necessarily going to be doing all year," Flacco said. "It kind of got away from us a little bit, but we have total confidence in our running backs and in our line, pushing people around and opening up lanes for those guys."

The quarterback echoed Harbaugh in his support of the team's running back corps without Rice, and the running game's development.

"You saw what Justin is going to be able to do for us," Flacco said. "You've seen what Bernard can do for us in the past. We have some young guys, we have Lorenzo. We're going to be great, and our line is playing physical and getting better and better. I think that we're really working on a great thing, and working on being really good."

Juszczyk said the running back group believes it can produce against a Steelers defense that allowed 183 yards on 30 carries in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that performance means they "have respect for anybody's ability to run the football."

"We think we can do the same thing," Juszczyk said. "All those guys are going to step up. It's a big opportunity that's in front of them. They're the right guys for the job."

Jmeoli@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/JonMeoli

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