One of the positions that still appears shrouded in uncertainty is the Baltimore backfield. It seems a bit strange considering just two seasons ago the Ravens had what many would have considered a strong one-two punch from that position on the road to a Super Bowl ring.
Odd how things change in just one season. The Ravens were 30th in Rushing offense in 2013 and with question marks surrounding their top two players in the depth chart the future appears murky at best.
Let’s take a look.
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2014 Depth Chart
Running Backs: Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Justin Forsett, Cierre Wood, Fitzgerald Toussaint
Fullbacks: Kyle Juszczyk
Ray Rice is coming off his worst season as a starter, compiling only 660 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground last season. In his previous four seasons he had registered at least 1,100 yds and scored 39 touchdowns en route to two All-Pro and three Pro Bowl selections over that span.
The reasons for Rice’s unceremonious slide included nagging injuries, excess weight, and poor line play. His off-season was equally as disastrous as he was arrested and indicted for striking his fiancee. He was accepted into a pre-trial intervention program last month and has spoken with league commissioner Roger Goodell on the matter. The issue of league action however still hangs in the balance and as of now there is no timetable as to when an announcement will be made. Most analysts expect a suspension of some type to be forthcoming but no one can agree on just how many games Rice will serve.
In the meantime Rice has cut weight and is reportedly back to around 208 lbs. which he played at as a rookie. He has supposedly looked good and has shown some of the burst that was missing a year ago. Needless to say this is a pivotal season for Rice who has much to prove at age 27, a year when many runners begin to taper off.
Bernard Pierce was viewed by many as a solid compliment to Rice. As a rookie in 2012 he averaged 4.9 yards per carry on only 108 attempts. Many felt he would be able to expand his role the following season. Instead Pierce never appeared over off-season shoulder surgery and saw his rush average dip to 2.9. Pierce has still be limited in off-season mini-camp but the hope is that he should be a full go come late July. Let’s hope so since he would be slated to get the carries with a possible Rice suspension looming.
Justin Forsett was signed this off-season to provide help on Special Teams but considering the Ravens circumstances in the backfield he will be battling rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro for first-team reps as well. Forsett is a seven-year NFL vet who has been a career back-up in the league. However in spot duty he has been able to produce and also is familiar with Gary Kubiak’s scheme so he may be able to take over the head role at least in the short term.
Taliaferro was the Big South conference player of the year for Coastal Carolina. He’s a big, strong, one-cut runner that should fit in well with the new offensive scheme. He did not make a good first impression though as he was arrested for public drunkeness and destruction of property in late May. He will still get plenty to chances to early to show what he can do.
Second-year man Kyle Juszczyk no longer has any competition in front of him as Vonta Leach was released in February. The hope is that he will used in a multitude of roles in the offense from lead blocking to lining up in several different positions. Juice has looked good in camp and he hopes to catch about 40-50 passes this season. That figure may be a bit overly optimistic but it does show that he could be another option in this rebuilt offensive unit.
Projections: The Ravens running game has to improve from last season if they are to get back to playoff form. Rice is the key and I think that he can at least get back to the 1,000 yard campaigns of old if he is truly injury free. No question that he’ll get suspended and I see a 3-4 game scenario before he returns to the field.
What happens in the meantime is still dicey. Pierce won’t be fully cleared until Training camp so we really have no idea what he can provide at this stage. That leaves a battle between Forsett and Taliaferro. I’d give Forsett the edge due to experience but early reports do praise the rookie pass protection which is normally a key that holds back a first year’s playing time.
For years the Ravens have often gone with only three running backs but with suspension and injuries a concern all four should stick come September. Juszczyk is a real wild card and many have high hopes for him. I’d expect him to finish with around 25-30 grabs and to be moved around the formation to help create mismatches. He’s is definitely a player to watch next month and beyond.