If you think the Ravens are being coy about their running back situation, Lorenzo Taliaferro wants to let you in on a little secret.
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak doesn't let the players know in advance how he'll divvy up the carries on game day, either.
"He doesn't really tell us who's going to go in during the week," said Taliaferro, the Ravens' rookie running back. "[It's] … whoever they call and put in. We'll all step out there and get the job done."
There remains a shroud of mystery about the Ravens' running game as they face the Carolina Panthers Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium. Will Bernard Pierce return to being the Ravens' primary back after missing last week with a quadriceps injury? Does Justin Forsett, who averages a league-best 6.3 yards per carry, get the opportunity? Or what about Taliaferro, who rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown last week against the Cleveland Browns in his first extended NFL action?
Kubiak, of course, isn't saying.
"They are all going to play," he said. "That's probably the easy way for me to answer that right now, but they are all going to contribute, they're all going to play. … We're going to keep a fresh guy on the field is what we're going to do. If we feel like one guy's got the hot hand, so to speak, then obviously he's going to go back out [on the field]. But I want them all to prepare as if they are starting."
In 2008, the Ravens rode a three-headed running attack, featuring Le'Ron McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice, to an 11-5 record and a berth in the AFC championship game. Their plan for life after Rice, who was released earlier this month as part of the fallout from his offseason arrest, could include a similar formula.
Entering a matchup with the Panthers, who surrendered 264 rushing yards to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, the Ravens have the eighth-best rushing attack in the NFL, a dramatic turnaround after last year's futility on the ground. The resurgence of the running game has been keyed by a trio of backs with relatively different styles.
Forsett, who leads the team with 189 rushing yards, is the quick and shifty veteran. At 6-feet, 226 pounds, Taliaferro is the downhill bruiser. Pierce, who has 113 rushing yards in two games, is a combination of both, his physical, one-cut style fitting well into Kubiak's zone running scheme.
At a time where running backs are going down with injuries on a weekly basis and more and more teams are relying on multiple ball carriers, the Ravens and the New Orleans Saints are the only two teams in the league that have three running backs with more than 15 carries each. The Ravens, who have had a different leading rusher in each of their first three games, are the only team in the NFL to have three backs with more than 90 yards rushing.
"They all do their own little thing well, and they're all running the ball really well right now," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. "[We have to] keep it going, keep them flowing, keep getting each one of them in the game and getting them touches. Right now, it's working out really well, and I think it's a good formula. I think it'll be able to keep these guys fresh. And if at some point down the line, if we do have to deal with injuries, and things like that — like we had to [last] week with Bernard — then we're going to have those guys that have the confidence to step in there and play very well, because they had all those game reps.
"So, the more guys that we can get back there, and the more guys that we can get touches and get their confidence level up, the better it is for us in the long run."
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is no stranger to using a running back-by-committee approach. In recent seasons, Rivera has used DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, the time share proving to be a nightmare for their fantasy football owners and a matchup problem for the Panthers' opposition.
But Rivera knows what it's like to be on the other side, too. As the defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers, he remembered how difficult it was to prepare for the Houston Texans and Kubiak's running back tandem of Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
"The style of offense that he uses is one of those that I think handles that situation well, because now you're getting two types of styles," Rivera said. "You're getting a guy that can bounce the ball outside and a guy that can cut back. If you look at the Ravens, all three backs are similar, but they have their own different characteristic style of the way they run. We have to make sure we understand who the back is and then play from there."
In nearly two decades as a play caller, Kubiak has mostly relied on one or two backs. The presence of Pro Bowl running backs such as Terrell Davis and Foster has allowed him to do that. But he's also not been afraid to get numerous ball carriers into the mix. In Kubiak's final full season with the Texans in 2012, Foster was the primary back and got 351 carries, but Tate also got 65 and Forsett 63.
Now, Forsett is seeing the benefits of the arrangement again, this time with the Ravens.
"When your number is called, you want to go out and perform. It adds that much to the competition," Forsett said. "It definitely pushes you. Competition breeds guys working hard and pushing each other, and guys raising their talent. I love it."
The Ravens' other two backs have seemingly bought in as well. Pierce, who was the presumed heir apparent to Rice, was benched in a Week One loss to the Cincinnati Bengals after his second-quarter fumble. However, he didn't sulk and instead lauded Forsett's performance after the game. Pierce then carried the ball 22 times against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sidelined for the Ravens' victory over the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, Pierce said he endorses head coach John Harbaugh's plan to stay with the guy having the most success, like Taliaferro was last week.
"If [Harbaugh] thinks Lorenzo has the hot hand, then so be it. We still have to complement each other. We all have to still work," Pierce said. "Starter, second string, third string — I think all of our mind sets are, as long as we're able to contribute in one form or another, we're all fine with sharing the load."
There could be a drive on Sunday where Pierce is the featured back to start and then gives way to Forsett on third down. If the Ravens advance deep into Panthers' territory, Taliaferro might be summoned to get the goal-line carries.
"We have confidence that they can all play. We have a plan. We have certain rotations and ideas, and things that we like each of them to do," Harbaugh said. "They're going to run out there and be prepared to do what they need to do and they are all good players. If you run a not-good player out there, you've got concerns. But when you run a good player out there, you feel good about that."
Spreading the wealth
The Ravens and the New Orleans Saints are the only two teams in the NFL to have three running backs more than 15 carries apiece. Here's a look at the teams that most utilize three backs:
Team; Total rushes; Top ball carriers (number of rushes in parentheses);
Chargers; 97; Donald Brown (40), Ryan Mathews (23), Danny Woodhead (15)
Ravens; 89; Justin Forsett (30), Bernard Pierce (28), Lorenzo Taliaferro (18)
Saints; 87; Khiry Robinson (32), Mark Ingram (24), Pierre Thomas (18)
Falcons; 80; Steven Jackson (37); Jacquizz Rodgers (16), Devonta Freeman (13)
Titans; 79; Shonn Greene (30), Bishop Sankey (18), Dexter McCluster (14)
Panthers; 67; Jonathan Stewart (29), DeAngelo Williams (14), Mike Tolbert (14)