Can Bernard Pierce Carry the Load?

I’m sure everyone is (very) familiar with the Ray Rice story at this point. We have a whole thread devoted to talking about it, in fact. So I won’t go into it here. But at this point, many have begun to speculate that #27 is done in Baltimore. While it’s still far too early to tell what kind of punishment Rice will face – from the courts, from the NFL, or from the Ravens – it’s not too early to take a look at his backup, Bernard Pierce. Whether Rice is on the team or not at the start of the 2014 season, Pierce will certainly contribute to the team’s fortunes.

The question is…just how much can he do? Could he potentially replace Ray Rice as the starting running back in the team’s new offense? Can he turn the glimpses we saw during the Super Bowl run into a full, successful season? Let’s take a look…

You can discuss this article on the message board. Also, thanks to Dan for the images.

Rushing 

First things first. Dan and I both agreed that at this point, we’d rather see Pierce as RB1 over Rice. He is younger with upsides whereas Rice is on the decline. Additionally, many of Pierce’s weaknesses can be overcome with coaching and practice.

That being said, he’s not a great running back. He’s above average and deserves a chance to start in this league. But his ceiling appears modest. He may have averaged five yards per carry in 2012, but as far as what he’s capable of producing over a full season, I think that it’s a pretty unrealistic expectation.

Unfortunately, that’s because Pierce lacks both burst and top-end speed. It’s pretty disappointing. He just doesn’t have elite quickness when he hits the hole and in the open field he’s somewhat easily caught.

Luckily, Pierce is pretty big (listed at 6′ tall and 220lbs), and he’s a fairly powerful runner. He almost always falls forward, and he can break tackles. On power plays, he needs to learn to hit the hole harder and use his size to his advantage. Right now he’s too hesitant, especially when he sees the hole closing or a tackler flying in.

But the biggest knock on Pierce at this point is his vision. He needs a lot of work following his blocks in the ZBS and almost all second-level blocks in any scheme. I’m hopeful that this is something coaching and repetition will correct. Let’s take a look at this particular weakness:

Zone Lead Weak

butt1

This play is a Zone Lead Weak. FB Leach will kick out the "Force" player to the field and Bernard Pierce will aim for the B-Gap.

butt2

With a trainwreck in the B gap and C Gradkowski unable to "reach" the tilted Nose Tackle, the new aiming point is off Gradkowski's butt. Zone-blocking is fluid in the post-snap phase so new aiming points are easily accounted for by the scheme's flexibility.

butt3

Pierce is in good shape here. He can cut off of RG Yanda's block to the inside (solid arrow) or work to Yanda's left once Yanda has eliminated the linebacker via pancake (dotted arrow).

butt4

RG Yanda has cleared a giant chasm for Pierce to penetrate. However, Pierce does not wait for his blocks at the second level to develop and simply tackles himself by running into the back of RT Michael Oher.

This play is a Zone Lead Weak.  FB Leach will kick out the "Force" player to the field and Bernard Pierce will aim for the B-Gap.With a trainwreck in the B gap and C Gradkowski unable to "reach" the tilted Nose Tackle, the new aiming point is off Gradkowski's butt. Zone-blocking is fluid in the post-snap phase so new aiming points are easily accounted for by the scheme's flexibility.Pierce is in good shape here.  He can cut off of RG Yanda's block to the inside (solid arrow) or work to Yanda's left once Yanda has eliminated the linebacker via pancake (dotted arrow).RG Yanda has cleared a giant chasm for Pierce to penetrate.  However, Pierce does not wait for his blocks at the second level to develop and simply tackles himself by running into the back of RT Michael Oher.

Nobody said the ZBS is easy, so I suppose Pierce gets some slack for being young. But to be an effective back – especially now that Kubiak is the OC – Pierce will need to learn to read these fluid blocks as they develop. It’s easy to pin the woes of the running game on the linemen, but the running backs are not without blame.

In fact, the next play shows even more clearly that Pierce has a lot to learn about the zone running game. It also highlights the fact that Pierce is nowhere near an elite cut-back running back. He’ll need to learn to read his blocking better, as he’s not fast or agile enough to get to the backside of the defense and turn the corner.

Outside Zone

away1

The Ravens have brought a 6th offensive lineman into the game (EO, Ricky Wagner) and set him as the second tight-end in an "Ace" formation. The play is Outside Zone where every blocker will look to either "reach" the man in front of him or work to the second level. Every defender is accounted for including the Safety (top left) who will be run-off by a Wide Receiver.

away2

Pierce is on his intended trajectory. No penetration disrupts his path and the threat of a gap-shooter (#50 A.J. Hawk) is soon accounted for by LG Osemele.

away3

Pierce has clear skies ahead if he follows his outside route. Instead, Pierce looks to cut the play back prematurely. Yes, the zone-blocking scheme is designed for cut-backs but only if the original path of the running-back is impeded by fast-flowing defenders. Pierce makes the incorrect move AND executes it far too late...

away4

...the results are predictable.

The Ravens have brought a 6th offensive lineman into the game (EO, Ricky Wagner) and set him as the second tight-end in an "Ace" formation.  The play is Outside Zone where every blocker will look to either "reach" the man in front of him or work to the second level.  Every defender is accounted for including the Safety (top left) who will be run-off by a Wide Receiver.Pierce is on his intended trajectory.  No penetration disrupts his path and the threat of a gap-shooter (#50 A.J. Hawk) is soon accounted for by LG Osemele.Pierce has clear skies ahead if he follows his outside route.  Instead, Pierce looks to cut the play back prematurely.  Yes, the zone-blocking scheme is designed for cut-backs but only if the original path of the running-back is impeded by fast-flowing defenders.  Pierce makes the incorrect move AND executes it far too late......the results are predictable.

Now, the above is a particularly bad play. But I don’t want to make this entire review seem too negative. Pierce definitely has some glaring holes in his game, but obviously he has talent too, as we’ve all seen on game day. The next play highlights a few of his strengths, particularly his lateral agility.

Inside Zone Weak

go1

From the Pistol formation, the Ravens run Inside Zone Weak. Standard "reach" and combination blocks are used save for C Gradkowski and Rg Marshal Yanda. These lineman use a "Pin+Pull" or "Fold" technique where the outer-most lineman (i.e. Yanda) blocks "down" onto the his head-up defender and Gradkowski pulls behind him to the second level.

go2

RG Yanda's down block cuts off the back-side entirely and the team is left with C Gradkowski and RT Oher leading Pierce through the new alley.

go3

LG Shipley had a particularly difficult assignment and is unable to reach the Weak linebacker (orange). Pierce shows fantastic (yet subtle) burst and evasion to hug RT Oher's block in order to avoid the unblocked 'backer. After clearing the first two levels of the defense, Pierce is able to break for a gain of 11.

From the Pistol formation, the Ravens run Inside Zone Weak.  Standard "reach" and combination blocks are used save for C Gradkowski and Rg Marshal Yanda.  These lineman use a "Pin+Pull" or "Fold" technique where the outer-most lineman (i.e. Yanda) blocks "down" onto the his head-up defender and Gradkowski pulls behind him to the second level.RG Yanda's down block cuts off the back-side entirely and the team is left with C Gradkowski and RT Oher leading Pierce through the new alley.LG Shipley had a particularly difficult assignment and is unable to reach the Weak linebacker (orange).  Pierce shows fantastic (yet subtle) burst and evasion to hug RT Oher's block in order to avoid the unblocked 'backer.  After clearing the first two levels of the defense, Pierce is able to break for a gain of 11.

Right now, Pierce is at his best when he can follow the run’s original path (not having to cut back or improvise). He moves pretty well between bodies and has a shifty sort of lateral agility that, combined with his power, make him a potentially dangerous running back.

Receiving and Blocking

But we all know that, to replace Ray Rice, Pierce would have to be the complete package. Can be catch the ball out of the backfield and provide pass protection to keep Joe on his feet?

Pierce caught just 20 passes in 2013, but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily bad at it. He catches the ball with his body more than I’d like to see, but that was also early in the season. As the games progressed, I saw him catch more with his hands, which leads me to believe the coaches were trying to correct that particular problem. And Pierce actually posted a lower drop rate than Rice, dropping just one out of 21 catchable passes.

Finally, Pierce is an average to above average pass blocker. His blitz recognition is actually pretty impressive, as I saw him correctly diagnose several challenging stunts and twists. His actual blocking ability, though, is occasionally suspect. He whiffed on a few chip blocks that ultimately got Flacco crushed.

In Summation

Bernard Pierce is an intriguing talent, and most teams would be pumped to have such a good RB2 on their roster. He is a powerful runner with subtle yet shifty lateral agility who can catch the ball out of the backfield. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have elite burst or speed, which probably means he has a modest ceiling. However, with practice and good coaching, I think that Pierce can be an effective RB1, a complete package who can stay on the field to run, catch, or block – as long as he improves his vision and patience, particularly in the zone running game.

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About the author


Chris Worthington  

Ravens Analyst

Chris Worthington was born and raised in northern Baltimore County and currently lives in Baltimore City. He graduated from McDaniel College with a B.A. in English and a minor in writing and then went on to earn his M.S. Professional Writing from Towson University. Currently, Chris works as the Managing Editor of Capitol Hill Daily, a political e-letter. Chris began writing about the Ravens in 2012. Be sure to check out all of his All-22 work in collaboration with Dan Bryden.


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