If you asked Bernard Pierce, he'd tell you that absolutely nothing has changed.
He's prepared himself like he always has. He says that he doesn't feel any extra pressure. He doesn't sense any unique or special opportunity at hand.
However, those who have observed the Ravens' running back for the past several months see it differently. From the first day of training camp, his teammates and coaches have noticed his increased focus and intensity. Matt Rhule, one of Pierce's former coaches at Temple, saw how hard the running back attacked the offseason rehab on his surgically-repaired right shoulder.
"I'm sure he is looking at this as his opportunity," said Rhule, now the Temple head coach after serving as the Owls' offensive coordinator during Pierce's time at the school. "I know how hard he worked to come back from surgery. When you do that, you do it for a reason. You know that this is your shot, this is your time. He's worked really, really hard to be in great shape, to get healthy. Now, it's his shot to go prove that he's a starting NFL running back."
Asked Wednesday whether he looks at Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals as an audition for a long-term starting role, Pierce said, "You can put it that way, but … it's just another game to me."
At the very least, Ray Rice's two-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy has given Pierce — whether he acknowledges it or not — an opportunity to stake his claim to a bigger role in the Ravens' new-look offense, regardless of Rice's status going forward.
"I know this is a big opportunity for Bernard in his career," Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "This is my first time with him, but I know that he's worked hard, he's ready to go, he's practiced well this week. This is a big, big stage for him at this point in his career and it's huge for our team that he plays well."
Pierce, 24, started one game last September against the Houston Texans, when Rice was sidelined with a hip injury but this is decidedly different.
This is the regular-season opener against a divisional rival. This is the debut of Kubiak's West Coast offense and its physical, downhill running game. This is the first opportunity for Pierce to show that things have changed from last year, when the Ravens gained a franchise-worst 1,328 rushing yards and averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry.
"I'm as excited as I can be," said Pierce, who rushed for 436 yards on 152 carries last year after gaining 532 yards on 108 carries in his rookie season. "At the end of the day, I can't really over think it. I just have to make sure I stay mentally locked in and focused, because this could possibly be my only shot."
His only shot?
"This league, it's the next man up," Pierce said. "If you can't handle the load, somebody else will."
For two seasons, Pierce has been that "next man." Drafted in the third round in 2012 to back up Rice, Pierce has shown glimpses of the potential to be an every-down back. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry in his rookie year and emerged as a legitimate weapon in the Ravens' run to the Super Bowl.
But he struggled last year, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry, and opportunities to be the lead guy have been elusive. In two seasons, he's had more than 10 carries in a game just six times.
Questions about his durability have followed him from Temple, where Rhule believes a series of nagging injuries in Pierce's junior and senior seasons caused him to fall in the third round of the draft. Pierce has never missed a game in the NFL, but he's been on the injury report 10 different weeks for a variety of ailments. He also suffered a concussion this preseason and he acknowledged it wasn't his first. But he says that he's fully recovered.
"I tore my labrum and my rotator cuff. I would say that's a pretty significant injury. And, I caught a helmet-to-helmet [hit] last week, so I would say that you can't prevent that," Pierce said. "Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but I think, matter of fact, I know I'm pretty durable."
Pierce is listed as 6-foot, 230 pounds and his upright, physical running style has lent itself to him taking some big hits. But that style is also why many predict that Pierce will flourish behind the zone blocking scheme, endorsed by Kubiak and current offensive line coach Juan Castillo.
The system has produced a plethora of 1,000-yard rushers, from perennial Pro Bowl selections like Terrell Davis and Arian Foster to less heralded backs like Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary. It calls for a one-cut, downhill running style, which fits Pierce, who ran in a similar scheme at Temple, to a tee.
"You always want to be one cut and go in this offense," said running back Justin Forsett, who will likely be Pierce's primary backup Sunday. "A guy with that body, that size, that speed going downhill, [defensive backs] are going to want to get out of the way."
"You get one cut and go. That's the whole philosophy," Billick said. "Bernard Pierce, I think, matches up. Ray Rice can do it, but that hasn't been Ray's M.O. Ray has great feet and can get in the hole and will stutter and step and go. That's not this system but it doesn't mean Ray can't adjust."
To his credit, Pierce has been deferential to Rice. He has supported him publicly and steered clear of publicly campaigning for the starting running back job. He insists that Rice's suspension and the opportunity that it provided him was not a motivating factor this summer.
"I never practice as though I was a No.2 or No.3," he said. "I always practiced [so that] if I get a role, I'd be able to take that role and master it."
He, along with Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, ran well enough in the preseason that the ground attack, even with Rice sidelined, is not even viewed as a primary concern among team officials. A big reason for that is a motivated Pierce, who has "done all the right things," according to guard Marshal Yanda.
"We have all the confidence in the world in him," Yanda said.
After getting up to 250 pounds following his shoulder surgery in January, Pierce dropped 26 pounds in the weeks leading up to training camp. He said that he feels light on his feet and agile, and jokingly compared himself to a cheetah.
If this indeed is his "only shot," he appears primed to make a statement.
"I think what people are going to see is they have a first-round talent, an NFL starting tailback sitting there," Rhule said. "He's a complete back."
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