Ravens don't need to rock the boat at running back

This is no time for a running-back controversy, and there doesn't need to be one soon.

The competition between Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to be the starter of the future will eventually work itself out, but the Ravens will need both for the rest of the 2013 season.

If Rice's hip is healthy, then he should start against Houston on Sunday. If not, then Pierce starts, but he should relinquish the assignment once Rice is ready to play.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn't announce any lineup changes Monday at his news conference, even though Pierce replacing Rice had become a hot topic after he substituted for Rice early in the fourth quarter Sunday in the Ravens' 14-6 win against Cleveland.

Pierce had 34 yards on 11 carries in the remaining time to cement the victory and he finished with 57 yards on 19 attempts for the day.

It was an impressive effort, but Pierce was no Adrian Peterson. It certainly wasn't enough to overtake Rice, one of the league's top all-around performers during the past five years. But in this day of finding quick solutions, Pierce became the running back of the week.

His tough inside running gave the Ravens a spark in the second half Sunday, but let's not get carried away. Even in this era of pass-happy offenses, you're still probably going to need two healthy running backs to get through the season, and the Ravens have the Rice-Pierce combination, not Pierce-Rice.

It's fair to conclude that Rice hasn't played well in two games so far. There hasn't been much explosion or acceleration. He had opportunities Sunday to turn a run and short pass into potential long gainers or possible touchdowns, but he couldn't break a tackle.

He always seems to be falling forward and losing his balance, as if his legs are tired. But it would be a big mistake to blame all the problems of the running game on Rice. Jim Brown couldn't have rushed for more than 100 yards if he had played for the Ravens Sunday.

Pierce got most of those yards on his own against Cleveland. That 8-yard run from the Browns' 13 late in the third quarter was spectacular, sheer power as Pierce broke three tackles. On the next play, Pierce ran 5 more yards to finish off a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive. On the sideline, almost every Raven player raised his arms in celebration, except Rice.

And that's where Harbaugh has to be careful.

Regardless of the success of Pierce, it's too early in the season to risk messing with the psyche of a player like Rice who is also popular in the locker room. To bench him would be like making him the scapegoat of a team still trying to find an identity, a team that is already low on playmakers at the wide receiver and tight end positions.

It's not as if Rice has been playing like safety Michael Huff, whose poor play forced the Ravens to bench him.

Pierce's downhill running style is perfect for the Ravens' zone blocking scheme, which is modeled after the one Denver uses. It's basically no-nonsense running; one cut, hit the hole and gone. That's Pierce. Rice stutter-steps, slices and cuts back more.

The problem with Pierce is that his body can't handle 20 to 30 carries a game for the rest of the season, not with this offensive line. He struggled physically just to make it through the preseason.

At this time, with an offense loaded with young receivers, the Ravens need something stable, and that's their running game. Rice commands respect because he can beat you on the field as either a runner or a receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

If the Ravens can upgrade their passing game it should help open some lanes for Rice. Rice and Pierce are still each other's perfect complement, with Rice being the home-run hitter and Pierce the closer in the third and fourth quarters.

Near the end of or after the season the Ravens can decide which one starts in 2014. Rice will have completed his sixth year, which is a long life for an NFL running back. Pierce will be entering his third, the peak time for a starting halfback.

Rice will be in the back end of a heavily loaded contract and Pierce will come much cheaper. By then, the decision should be much easier to make.

Until then, Harbaugh should remain status-quo.



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