Bernard Pierce got a taste of what the next four weeks will be like when his walk off the field with a team doctor late in Saturday's practice became the talk of Ravens' training camp.
Pierce was only dealing with a minor heat-related illness but any ailment or injury that takes the running back off the field in training camp will quickly become a concern.
"I just want to show that I'm dependable and you can count on me," said Pierce, who has never missed a game in his two NFL seasons despite having his share of injuries. "I just need a chance."
If he stays healthy, Pierce should get that chance with Ray Rice set to sit out the first two regular-season games because of a league-ordered suspension. Pierce said that the potential opportunity doesn't change his preparation or outlook. But his response to January shoulder surgery — he lost 26 pounds in the weeks leading up to training camp — and how he's looked so far this summer suggests that he understands how important he is to the Ravens' early-season success.
"At the end of the day, you have to have that mentality that you're going into the season and you'll definitely be given a role," Pierce said. "So, my role may be a little bigger, but I'm still going to train and practice the way I've been doing for the last three years."
A day after his early exit from camp, Pierce bounced back with a solid practice. He broke off a few nice gains, made a couple of catches out of the backfield and impressed head coach John Harbaugh by stepping up twice and picking up the blitz.
The way that the third-year back has hit the hole and initiated contact is a good indication that Pierce isn't concerned — mentally or physically — with the strength of his surgically-repaired right shoulder. His quick cuts and shiftiness speak to the importance of his offseason workout regimen and just how dangerous he could be in new coordinator Gary Kubiak's offense, which emphasizes a power running game.
"Bernard has done a great job. He has seized the opportunity," Harbaugh said. "He's gotten himself prepared for the challenge that he has in front of him. He understands he has a test in front of him. This is it right here, but it's just beginning. We have a long way to go but I like where he's at."
For all the talk about Rice's rushing problems last season, Pierce struggled just as much albeit in lesser opportunities. He averaged just 2.9 yards a carry — Rice averaged 3.1 — a season after he was gaining 4.9 yards per carry and becoming a difference maker during the Ravens' Super Bowl run.
The offensive line's issues were well documented last year, but Pierce didn't look as explosive or decisive as he did a season earlier. He rushed for 436 yards and two touchdowns on 152 carries. He gained 96 fewer yards than he did in his rookie season despite having 44 more carries last year.
"It definitely is motivating and also was humbling coming from the year before," said Pierce, a third-round pick out of Temple in 2012. "I think everybody's intention this year is to climb back up the chart and show everybody that we can get this run game started and we're still the Ravens from 2012."
There is a lot working in Pierce's favor but the most important thing at this juncture is good health. He has been on the injury list 10 weeks over the past two years, dealing with toe, back, thigh, knee, ankle and shoulder issues. He's played through them all but the torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder last year was easily the most debilitating.
"It was pretty painful, honestly, but that's what we signed up for," Pierce said. "This is the game, it's physical, and at the end of the day, we have to play through it, so I can't make excuses and … blame whatever on my shoulder. But I still came out and tried to do everything in my power to contribute."
Pierce ballooned to 248 pounds in the weeks after his surgery, which he said was embarrassing. However, slowly but surely, he worked it off and when he reported to camp, he weighed 222 pounds, six pounds lighter than his playing weight from last year. He's felt the difference early in training camp.
"I definitely feel a lot quicker," Pierce said. "I'm light on my feet and I feel like I have a lot more energy, so I like it."
Pierce has also been encouraged by his familiarity with Kubiak's new running style and blocking schemes because it offers similar concepts to the system that he ran at Temple. Both star (Terrell Davis and Arian Foster) and unheralded (Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson) backs have thrived in Kubiak's one-cut running system and Pierce certainly has the skill set to do the same.
But he also knows that in order to be a three-down back, he's going to need to improve his hands and his blocking. He's had some struggles in both areas for his first two seasons, but he said that he's focused on them and the early results in training camp have been good.
"He's gotten better. How much better he's gotten remains to be seen," Harbaugh said. "He's running hard. He had some good runs out there today. He had a run or two that weren't so good. But he had a couple of good catches and he had one catch that he didn't make. Everybody is a work-in progress. He's got about four weeks here to get ready to be the guy."
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