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Speed an underrated asset for Ravens' physical rookie RB

OWINGS MILLS - Consistently churning out extra yards after initial contact, Ravens rookie running back Bernard Pierce has earned a reputation as being a tough, physical player with a knack for eluding opposing tacklers.

But the 6-foot, 225-pound Pierce feels there's an overlooked part to his game: His speed.

"It is overlooked," Pierce said with a smile. "I've always been told that I have deceptive speed. I have a long stride, so it doesn't really look like I'm running that fast, but I am."

He showed that speed against the New York Giants last week, accelerating past the Giants' defense for a 78-yard gain before finally being pushed out of bounds at New York's 1-yard line.

The big gain against the Giants is one of 14 runs of 10 yards or longer for Pierce this season despite logging just 86 carries through the first 15 games.

"People don't know about his speed, but he does have good speed," fullback Vonta Leach said.

Pierce ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, one of the top times among the running backs in attendance. He followed that with a time of 4.42 in the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day in March.

"He's definitely fast," fellow running back Ray Rice said of Pierce. "He ran a good time in the 40. But when you get past the 40 and all that stuff, it's just time to play football and you need to have game speed, and that's something he has."

But it's Pierce's physicality and ability to break tackles that have been his calling card and provided the Ravens with an ideal complement to the smaller and more elusive Rice.

"Our running styles are totally different," Pierce said. "He's more laterally quick than I am. And I know I'm not laterally quick, so I don't even try to be. I'm just a north-south type guy.

"But it's a nice switch-up. When he's in, they're expecting the more shifty stuff. When I'm in, it's a whole different approach. You have to play both of us two different ways, in the passing game and in the running game, and that's hard on defenses."

Added Rice: "He's a different kind of back. He's bigger. He's a bigger target, but he has that kind of balance and ability to stay low, and he has the ability to always make the first guy miss, which, as a running back, you always want to make the first guy miss and make something happen after that."

Baltimore's third round pick in April's NFL draft, Pierce has helped fill the void left by the retirement of last year's backup running back, Ricky Williams, during this past offseason. And Pierce could see an even more extensive workload during today's regular season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals if the Ravens choose to limit Rice's carries, as they're expected to.

Pierce has rushed for 443 yards this season, just one yard less than the veteran Williams ran for last year. But while Williams averaged just 4.1 yards per carry, Pierce is averaging 5.2 yards per attempt, the highest mark among rookie running backs with at least 50 carries.

He had a career-high 123 yards on 14 carries against the Giants last week.

He had 53 yards on just eight carries against the Washington Redskins two weeks earlier.

"We certainly needed a guy to fill that role," center Matt Birk said. "You need more than one guy back there, and we certainly needed to find a guy, and Bernard's definitely filled that role, probably better than even most people expected."

Pierce was slowed by a lingering hamstring injury during the early part of the offseason, but has seen a progressively increasing workload throughout the course of the regular season as head coach John Harbaugh has repeatedly voiced a desire to incorporate more of Pierce's physical running style - and deceptive speed - into the team's offense.

And after receiving just 23 carries in Baltimore's first seven games, Pierce has carried the ball 63 times in the last eight games, an average of nearly eight carries per game.

He's produced at least one rush of 11 yards or longer in seven of those eight games, including the 78-yard burst against New York.

"He's added a lot to the offense," Leach said. "The more we put him in, the more we see from the guy. He's just a big, powerful, physical back that runs between the tackles well and can get to the outside. I think we'll see some big things from him going forward."

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