NEW ORLEANS — Ten games into the season, Ravens rookie running back Bernard Pierce was struggling to find his way into the game plan. He had fewer than five carries in a game eight times and he didn't touch the ball in an Oct. 21 loss to the Houston Texans.
LaMichael James, who was taken by the San Francisco 49ers with the 30th pick in the second round, 23 spots before the Ravens selected Pierce, wasn't even getting on the field. James was inactive for the 49ers' first 12 games.
As the Ravens and 49ers prepare to meet at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII, the two rookie backs have emerged as potential key players. Pierce, the primary backup for Ray Rice, has rushed for 169 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry over three playoff games.
After a season-ending injury to Kendall Hunter and the release of Brandon Jacobs, James has been a change of pace from starter Frank Gore and he scored his first NFL touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game two weeks ago.
"I'm a rookie. I'm just very blessed to be in the situation that I'm in, playing for a great team and being in a Super Bowl and actually being able to play," said James a small and shifty back who thrived in Chip Kelly's offense at Oregon. "You know that I'm young and I'm still learning. There are things that I can still do better. I'm very fine with my role."
James and Pierce both said they haven't focused on how the other running backs in the draft class have performed. The Cleveland Browns' Trent Richardson, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Doug Martin and the Washington Redskins Alfred Morris have been the rookies standouts, but Pierce's vision and hard-running style has given the Ravens a new dimension.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that Pierce was a better player than the Ravens expected when they traded up in the third round and selected him out of Temple. He finished the regular season with 532 rushing yards and one touchdown on 108 carries and his success has continued in the playoffs.
His performance hasn't surprised running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery. After veteran Ricky Williams retired in the offseason, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome approached Montgomery and asked him to review the rookie running back class. Montgomery got back to him with three names, two of which he knew would be gone by the time the Ravens made their first selection: Richardson, Martin and Pierce.
"He does things that you don't coach," Montgomery said. "You have to define his game for him. This guy so explosive between the first 20 yards than any back I've seen since Edgerrin James. He's got the lower body of Edgerrin James, he's got the legs of James but he has a little bit more explosion. He can run the outside zone but we have to teach him how to run the inside zone. Once he learn how to run the inside zone, once he gets those shoulders squared up, he's going to be a beast to bring down."
Sharing their story
Ravens safety James Ihedigbo thought he knew quite a bit about his family and then he read his mother's book, "Sandals in the Snow."
"I read half of the first chapter and I was already in tears because it's like things I didn't know growing up that happened," Ihedigbo said. "You get bits and pieces of a story but you never get the whole picture because you don't know the settings and what else happened. It puts all that into place and you really get to know our family on another level, especially where we came from."
Ihedigbo's mother, Rose Ihedigbo, wrote a memoir documenting her family's struggles from life in Nigeria to the United States. Ihedigbo received a doctorate in early childhood education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and through the years has been a consultant for childcare programs across the country.
But before she and her late husband, Apollos, arrived in the United States, they struggled.
"I think it's a phenomenal story. Not too often do you hear this type of success story where you raise five children and they're all successful in their field and you have two parents earning their doctorates," James Ihedigbo said. "And through all of that it's a nothing to something type of story, where my dad used to have to walk a mile and a half just to fetch bath water for the family, so growing up in those types of struggles really defined them."
Ayanbadejo keeps thoughts of his son close
Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo doesn't have to look far to keep this week in perspective. This spring, his son, Amadeus, who is just shy of 2-years old, is scheduled to have heart surgery after the season.
Ayanbadejo said the surgery is invasive but is common procedure.
"It's something that doctors are very proficient in and we have confidence and faith in our doctor that they're going to get everything done and our son will have a healthy long life," Ayanbadejo said.
He added: "The most important thing is we can just live one day at a time. When you break up a day, we have meetings, we have practice, we have weight lifting and you just have to be the best you can be at everything that you're doing, then when I go home and it's time for me to be daddy, I love my son, I love my daughter and I love my wife and I'm going to take care of them to the best of my abilities when I'm at home and I'm going to enjoy them and love them as much as I can."