Ravens running back Bernard Pierce kept plunging into the line of scrimmage Sunday, collidng with a stingy Houston Texans defensive front that repeatedly stonewalled him.
Rushing yards became a rare commodity for Pierce despite his efforts.
Making his first NFL start with injured Pro Bowl runner Ray Rice sidelined with a strained left hip flexor, Pierce salvaged a tough day by grinding out the majority of his 65 yards on 24 carries during the second half of a 30-9 victory at M&T Bank Stadium. Pierce rushed for 52 yards and a 1-yard touchdown on his 17 carries after halftime, gaining just 13 yards on seven carries during the first half.
It wasn't a sterling game for Pierce or the offensive line against a stout defense headlined by defensive end J.J. Watt and inside linebacker Brian Cushing.
"The front seven was definitely a monster," Pierce said. "They played great. There were a lot of motions and shifts that confused us a little bit. At the end of the day, we started pounding, pounding, pounding and eventually a little bit gave way. It was definitely a hard-nosed, hard-hitting game.
"It was tough sledding all day. That's a fast, physical defense. If there's nothing there, there's nothing there. Don't try to do something that could potentially be a negative play. We just had to take what we were given."
Little ground was yielded by the Texans, though.
Pierce found it much tougher this week to break tackles and power through the line of scrimmage. A dozen of his runs were two yards or less.
"We stuck with it and were stubborn and kept running the ball," fullback Vonta Leach said. "I think Bernard did good. Every yard counts. Maybe the stats weren't there, but this was a hard-fought game."
On the final play of the third quarter, Pierce finally broke free for a 25-yard run before being pushed out of bounds by former Ravens safety Ed Reed. That restored a bit of confidence.
"It was the one that I broke for a little bit of yardage after they weren't giving up an inch," Pierce said. "It was definitely an ego-booster and I think it definitely motivated the offense."
There weren't a lot of consistent holes for Pierce to run through. Watt recorded a team-high nine tackles, including three for losses with one sack.
"I think possibly guys were missing guys at times," left offensive guard Kelechi Osemele said. "I'm not sure if it was having a new back in there. Until you watch the film, we don't know what he was seeing or what the problem was.
"We were moving guys around when you look at the still photos. I have confidence in this offensive line and our running back. I think we'll be good."
The Ravens tried to account for Watt, game-planning for the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"He was all over the field, yes," Pierce said. "I don't think he was that disruptive in the run game."
Pierce wasn't provided much assistance from backup Shaun Draughn, who contributed just 2 yards on four carries before leaving the game with a high-ankle sprain.
Despite the higher profile of being a starter with Rice out, Pierce said he didn't treat this game any differently.
"Honestly, the way I look at things you can't psyche yourself up more than need be," Pierce said. "You can't get all hyped up and be all down later."
The Ravens entered Sunday ranked 23rd in rushing offense. They now have just 232 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 88 carries, an average of 2.6 yards per run.
Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell hasn't abandoned the run for the past two weeks in the second half, and it has paid off with ball control and red-zone success.
"Bernard battled the whole game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Jim stayed with the run game, was patient with it, which was good because it kept the clock moving. For Bernard to take the ball north-south against that defense and hold on to that football was a key part of the game."