Standing in front of his locker late Thursday night, running back Bernard Pierce smiled when reminded how the Ravens struggled mightily to run the football last season.
Pierce was typically grouchy after games last year, a man of few words and even fewer explanations for why the Ravens rushed for the fewest yards in franchise history.
Pierce was in a much different mood at M&T Bank Stadium after the Ravens' 23-3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers to open the preseason. For at least this game, the Ravens' revamped running game was transformed into a dominant outfit as they rushed for 237 yards and a touchdown on 48 carries to average 4.9 yards per rush. The Ravens reached the 100-yard rushing mark as a team in just three games last season.
"Last year, I would definitely say we had a hiccup," Pierce said. "We're trying to get back on track and become that physical Baltimore Ravens team that we're known to be. It was definitely a confidence-booster for me. The sky's the limit for us."
Whether it was Pierce finishing the first drive by pounding into the end zone on a 2-yard touchdown run behind strong blocks, Ray Rice displaying a burst rarely seen last season or rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro gaining a game-high 71 yards (12 carries), the running game took on a much different, more aggressive personality than last season.
The Ravens set a physical tone under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak on their first play from scrimmage. Using his trademark zone-blocking scheme, the offensive line moved laterally in unison and created a hole for Rice to read for a 6-yard gain. That led to a 14-yard tight end screen to Dennis Pitta on the next play and subsequent runs of 5 and 6 yards for Rice and a 7-yard run by Pierce leading to his touchdown.
"That first drive, we ran kind of our bread-and-butter, inside and outside zones," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "We had play-action, some screens. It was very Kubiak-esque. It was a test run, and I think it went well.
"It just shows much work we've been putting into it. The offensive line, every day they're grinding. They've improved so much. Our running backs are running hard, so it's very encouraging to see what we did."
Rice, who has been suspended for the first two regular-season games for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy, is noticeably leaner and quicker than a year ago. He looked more decisive in reading holes instead of stutter-stepping as he did last season.
"It felt really great to get to the edge and put my foot in the ground and go north," said Rice, who rushed for 17 yards on three carries in his one series. "That's the stuff that was missing last year. That's the stuff that we practice and practice. To get out there against another team and actually do it, that felt really good."
The Ravens finished 30th in rushing offense last season, with just 1,328 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Their average of 3.1 yards per carry was the lowest in the NFL.
Playing at roughly 225 pounds, Rice lost his elusiveness, rarely broke a tackle and gained just 660 yards, his lowest total since becoming a regular starter in 2009. He was limited by hip and quadriceps injuries, and averaged 3.1 yards per carry.
"I do feel different," said Rice, who's down to about 205 pounds. "I feel like I felt when I was a rookie. That's the weight that I want to try to continue to play at. After what I went through last year, when I added a little weight, I couldn't make the cuts that I used to. But after training during the offseason and focusing on the things that I needed to focus on, diet and exercise, I'm finally down to the weight that I'm comfortable with, and I'm going out there and executing."
Pierce rushed for just 436 yards and 2.9 yards per carry last season before undergoing offseason rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder in January.
Rice and Pierce are healthy again. Pierce is down to 218 pounds after weighing roughly 230 last season and ballooning to 250 after surgery.
"I felt that there was something that we missed last year," Pierce said. "Maybe it was a little more camaraderie, a little more trust. The holes were definitely opening up. As backs, we had to trust the system and hit it. There were creases all over the field. We just have to sit there and hit the holes on the run."
When Kubiak was with the Houston Texans, they ranked second in the NFL in rushing in 2011 when they averaged a franchise-record 153 yards per game. Between 2008 and 2012, the Texans were one of only two teams to rank in the top five in total offense, passing offense and rushing offense at least once during that span.
Last year, the Ravens averaged just 83 rushing yards per game.
That placed more pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco as he threw a career-high and franchise-record 22 interceptions. Flacco was often dealing with third-and-long situations. Having a viable running game could provide a boost to the passing game.
"It's huge for us," Pitta said. "Last year, we were in second-and-long and third-and-long in a lot of games, and that makes it tough for us. It certainly limits the playbook, and you can't run as many plays. Being able to get big chunks like that on first and second down in the run game opens things up for us a lot."
Not everything went entirely smoothly, though, against the 49ers.
Pierce lost and recovered a fumble. And Justin Forsett lost a fumble to the 49ers.
"Bernard fought and got the ball back, but you can't put the ball on the ground," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We are not going to be a team that gives the ball away."
Overall, Harbaugh was guardedly encouraged by the Ravens' rushing performance.
"It looked good from the sidelines, for the most part," Harbaugh said. "We're running the ball downhill, and it's a start, but it's just one day. We have to build on top of it."
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