Can the Ravens count on running back Bernard Pierce?

The Ravens are standing behind embattled running back Ray Rice -- for now, at least -- after police say he struck his fiancee in the face during a domestic dispute in Atlantic City over the weekend. But even if the Ravens keep Rice around, he could face discipline from the NFL, which is investigating the incident.

If the Ravens were to be without Rice for an extended period of time, could they count on Bernard Pierce to carry the load?

The 23-year-old running back is coming off a sophomore season in which he was actually less efficient than Rice, which is saying a lot considering Rice averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. Pierce averaged 2.9. Only former Ravens running back Willis McGahee averaged fewer yards per carry.

As a rookie, Pierce was electric in limited action, rushing for 532 yards on 108 carries -- an average of 4.9 yards per carry -- and a touchdown in relief of Rice during the regular season. He continued to perform well during the playoffs, including a 103-yard rushing performance in a wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Pierce ran with a purpose that season, displaying good vision and surprising burst for a bigger back -- he is six feet and 220 pounds -- to break free into the open field.

Last season, though, he often looked tentative and appeared to be especially indecisive on stretch zone plays where he was asked to wait for a crease to open as he ran laterally toward the sideline. Those plays, which didn’t seem to fit his skill set, often ended with him getting buried behind the line of scrimmage.

Not only did he struggle to find running room, Pierce also battled injuries, something that has plagued him throughout his professional career. While Pierce has yet to miss a game in his career, he has been dogged by injuries to his ankle, toe, knee, hamstring and thigh, and he had surgery this offseason to repair his rotator cuff.

While Pierce was a major disappointment in 2013 -- he was not as big of a letdown as Rice, though -- it is too soon to say we saw the best of him during his rookie season, though it is a possibility. His offensive line didn’t do him many favors and there were many games where it appeared that Pierce would have been a better option than Rice.

Pierce is not the pass-catching threat that Rice was when he was right, and while Pierce is a willing pass protector, he still has plenty of room to improve in that area.

But as a runner, Pierce could likely be an adequate starter if he runs with the patience and purpose he showed as a rookie and if the guys in front of him do a better job of run blocking. Of course, Pierce would also have to stay healthy while carrying most of the load out of the backfield, something he hasn’t gotten a chance to do at the NFL level.

Depending on what happens with Rice in the coming months, Pierce could get that opportunity this fall.

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