As the Ravens await NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's ruling on Ray Rice's discipline, it's becoming more apparent that they won't be alone in going with the running back by committee approach during Rice's absence.
There is wide-ranging opinion on how long Rice will be suspended for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy with his actions during a physical confrontation with his then fiancee and now wife in February. But it's certainly not impossible – and some view it as probable – that Rice is suspended for at least the first three games. That would cause him to miss the first matchup between all three AFC North foes: the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 7, the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 11 and the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 21.
With the length of Rice’s suspension having not been announced and the start of training camp still about 3 ½ weeks away, the Ravens obviously haven’t verbalized their plans for when their long-time starting running back is not available. But you can beat that such plans will depend on more than just one back.
Bernard Pierce, Rice’s top backup, is the obvious favorite to carry the load but he had shoulder surgery in the offseason and has yet to be cleared for full contact. And even if Pierce comes out of training camp fully healthy, there are still questions about his ability to be an every-down back.
He’s played in all 32 regular-season games since the Ravens picked him in the third round out of Temple in the 2012 draft. However, he’s had more than 10 carries in just six of those games and he’s also struggled in a couple of key areas for an every-down back – blitz pick up and catching the ball out of the backfield. Pierce has 27 receptions in two seasons.
Justin Forsett, who the Ravens signed this offseason with Rice’s potential suspension in mind, knows Gary Kubiak’s offense having played in it in 2012 with the Houston Texans. However, he had only six carries all of last season and he hasn’t started a game since 2010.
Rookie fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro put up some eye-grabbing numbers at Coastal Carolina, but the jury is still out on how quickly he’ll pick up the Ravens’ offense and how his skill set will transfer to the NFL.
The Ravens also have Cierre Wood and Fitzgerald Toussaint and it would be foolish to completely dismiss their chances to make the team, especially if Rice is given a lengthy suspension.
The reality is the Ravens will need all hands on deck in replacing Rice and even when he’s done serving his suspension, they are likely to spread the ball-carrying load.
They’ll have plenty of company in that regard in the AFC North.
The Bengals have veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis, explosive second-year back Giovani Bernard and rookie second-round pick Jeremy Hill. Le’Veon Bell had an impressive rookie season for the Steelers, but Pittsburgh still added productive veteran LeGarrette Blount and rookie third-round pick Dri Archer this offseason. The Browns, meanwhile, signed veteran Ben Tate, traded for Dion Lewis and then drafted former Towson standout Terrance West in the third round.
Their first-year head coach Mike Pettine made it clear last week that he plans to use his new backs.
“I think in the AFC North, you have to be running back by committee,” Pettine told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “You’d like to have a guy who can carry most of the load, but also be able to alternate guys … You’ve got to be able to get fresh legs out there.”
Since Rice established himself as one of the top all-purpose backs in the game, the Ravens haven’t needed to employ the running back by committee approach. But with Rice facing a potential multi-week suspension and coming off the worst season of his career, they probably will have to join their divisional foes in relying on several backs.