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With Ray Rice's suspension, Harbaugh expresses confidence in backfield depth

The Ravens have plotted contingency plans for several months in case starting running back Ray Rice was suspended by the NFL.

Now that Rice has been punished with a two-game suspension for violating the NFL personal-conduct policy stemming from a domestic violence incident, the Ravens are going to have to put those plans into action.

The NFL discipline has triggered a scenario where the Ravens' depth at running back will be severely tested.

The top candidate to start in Rice's absence is backup Bernard Pierce, who's coming off rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder in January.

Like Rice, Pierce struggled with injuries last season and rushed for 436 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 2.9 yards per carry as the Ravens finished 30th in rushing offense. As a rookie in 2012, the former third-round draft pick from Temple rushed for 532 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

Pierce is healthy again and down to 217 pounds. He looks much leaner and quicker than last season.

"I'm very confident in Bernard," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I've always liked Bernard. He's a heck of a player. He's worked very hard. He's in the best shape of his life. He looked good out there the last couple of days.

"We'll know more by Tuesday once we get the pads on and seeing him move with the pads on and how the shoulder holds up. That'll be important. Yes, I have a lot of confidence in all our guys."

Pierce said he's able to practice with no restrictions. He also emphasized how much he likes offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's zone-stretch play, which reminds him of what he ran in college where he rushed for 3,570 career yards and 53 touchdowns.

"The running game is definitely a lot simpler than what we had the year before," Pierce said. "We actually did this in college. I definitely like the zone scheme. I'm used to it. I got a knack for this kind of offense."

The Ravens' opening two games are against the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, who ranked fifth and 21st in rushing defense last season, respectively.

The Ravens will also rely upon veteran Justin Forsett, who has a background with Kubiak from his time with the Houston Texans, and rookie fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro.

Taliaferro is a big back at 6-foot, 226 pounds and was named the Big South Conference Offensive Player of the Year last season at Coastal Carolina when he rushed for 1,729 yards and 27 touchdowns before catching the Ravens' eyes at the Senior Bowl all-star game.

"We have a lot of depth at running back," Harbaugh said. "We'll just see how it plays out with the competition in there. I like our guys, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they do."

awilson@baltsun.com

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