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Veteran running back makes most of chance after Pierce is benched

Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett talks about getting the opportunity to play and replacing a benched Bernard Pierce. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

Ravens running back Bernard Pierce stood on the sideline Sunday afternoon as he watched Justin Forsett capitalize on the prime opportunity that Pierce had seemingly squandered.

Given a rare chance to start in place of Ray Rice while the star running back serves his two-game suspension for violating the NFL personal-conduct policy, Pierce was benched in the first half of a 23-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals by coach John Harbaugh .

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Pierce was upended on a tackle by Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict in the second quarter, losing a fumble as he awkwardly fell to the ground. Harbaugh had seen enough, immediately pulling Pierce in favor of Forsett. The veteran runner seized the chance and rushed for a game-high 70 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

This was the ensuing conversation with Harbaugh, according to Pierce: "He just said, 'Being a running back in this league, if you're trying to stay in this league, you can't fumble the ball.' And I agree with him 100 percent."

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Pierce rushed for just 14 yards on six carries, during a game that Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak had characterized as a huge opportunity for Pierce's career.

"No, it wasn't a health decision," Harbaugh said. "He's fine, he's healthy. I guess you can extrapolate from there. We're not too enamored with fumbles. It's not what we're looking for from our running backs."

Pierce remained on the bench for the remainder of the game following a turnover that led to Bengals kicker Mike Nugent's fifth field goal.

"If my name was called back up, I definitely would have gone back in and gave my all," Pierce said. "If not, which happened, I'm always going to cheer on my teammates and make sure I'm in their ear throughout the game."

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Pierce had never fumbled before in his NFL career until Burfict, the leading NFL tackler last season, ripped the football away.

"I kind of got put airborne, and the ball just kind of slipped away from me," Pierce said. "He grabbed my arm and just pulled it out. I thought I was down, yes, but it's 50-50."

Complimentary of how Forsett performed, Pierce said he's already put the mistakes behind him and expressed confidence that he'll play better going forward.

"Of course, I've just got to make sure I, first things first, protect the ball," said Pierce, a 2012 third-round draft pick. "This game is done. It's shaken off, on to next week."

A journeyman runner on his fifth NFL team who has a background in Kubiak's offense from his time with the Houston Texans two seasons ago, Forsett scooted 13 yards into the end zone in the third quarter to get the Ravens on the scoreboard after falling behind 15-0.

Forsett adeptly read blocks from tight end Dennis Pitta and right tackle Rick Wagner to accelerate to the pylon before the Bengals could react.

"I was ready," said Forsett, a 5-foot-8, 197-pounder from Cal in his seventh season. "I've been around a long time. When opportunities come, you just have to be ready."

Forsett was limited to nine games and 31 yards on six carries last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars during an injury-plagued year.

"Dealing with what I dealt with last year, you never know when you're going to play another snap," Forsett said. "Just come out with that passion and energy and try to be a spark."

The Ravens now have a decision to make for Thursday. They can give Pierce another shot or go with Forsett following an encouraging performance.

"I hope so, but you never know," Forsett said. "Anybody can have one good game. You have to try to string them together and try to get better next week. There's definitely room to grow and improve.

After ranking 30th last season in rushing yards, the Ravens' running game is officially in flux with Rice unavailable and Pierce struggling.

The Ravens rushed for 91 yards on 20 carries, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, as quarterback Joe Flacco launched 62 passes. The zone-stretch game wasn't emphasized as much as Kubiak has in the past, but Forsett salvaged the day to overcome a rough outing by Pierce.

"Justin played a phenomenal game," left guard Kelechi Osemele said. "That's kind of what we expect from him every time. We take pride in taking care of the ball. I'm sure that Bernard is pretty down on himself. He'll get it corrected."

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