Every Tuesday, blogger Matt Vensel breaks down a critical play, sometimes with the help of Ravens players, from that week's game. Today, he looks at Bernard Pierce's big run against the Browns on Thursday night.
In the third round of April's NFL draft, the Ravens still had one running back on their draft board that they really coveted. They had unexpectedly lost veteran running back Ricky Williams to retirement and they still weren't really sure what they had in youngsters Anthony Allen and Damien Berry. There was also the ongoing contract negotiation with Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, who at the time was only under contract for 2012.
But not only that, they thought Temple's Bernard Pierce had the talent and the one-cut-and-go running style to thrive in their zone-blocking scheme. So they dealt a fifth-round pick to move up eight spots and draft him.
The Ravens have brought Pierce along slowly so far this season -- perhaps because of the time he missed with a hamstring injury during training camp -- but he got a career-high six carries in Thursday's 23-16 win over the Cleveland Browns. He averaged eight yards per carry en route to a career-high 48 yards. The 220-pound rookie nearly busted through the Browns for a touchdown on a couple of plays, including one 21-yard run in the third quarter.
"I saw the holes and hit the holes a little better," the rookie back said after Thursday's game. "It wasn't a pretty game, but the offensive line came through in the clutch and blocked their butts off. Everybody calmed down. After that, it started clicking."
On his memorable 21-yard gain, the Ravens lined up their "21" personnel with two receivers split wide and a tight end on each end of the line. Pierce was alone in the backfield behind quarterback Joe Flacco, who would take the snap from under center.
After the snap, the offensive line fired off to the left, with the right side of the line -- center Matt Birk, guard Marshal Yanda and tackle Kelechi Osemele -- barreling over a trio of Cleveland defenders. Pierce ran to his left then cut back to the right into the big hole that had just opened up by blocks by Yanda and Osemele. Tight end Dennis Pitta, who isn't the best blocker, sealed the right side of the hole by getting in front of left defensive end Frostee Rucker.
The play took advantage of the aggression of the Browns, who had some success disrupting plays by shooting into the gaps between the offensive linemen. This time they got caught when Pierce cut back and the Baltimore offensive line imploded on them.
Pierce ran for the longest gain of his young career, finishing off the run inside Cleveland territory by dropping his shoulder into Browns safety Usama Young. Justin Tucker missed a long field goal try at the end of the drive. But the run gave the Ravens a glimpse of what they might have in Pierce as a chance of pace from Rice.
"He was just hitting holes. He is a downhill runner. On a couple of those inside-zone plays, he is just a straight-line guy, runs hard, like all of our backs do. He saw some creases and took them," Birk said Monday afternoon. "As great as Ray is, those guys that carry the ball, they take a beating, they get tired, and it's kind of nice to have a quality guy that can come in and spell him from time to time and give you a little bit different style, I guess, but also, obviously, to rest and rotate with Ray. A one-two punch is a good thing."