Secret Superstar: Bernard Pierce
As our Secret Superstar series rolls on, we come to the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens who, with general manager Ozzie Newsome, have made a name for themselves by finding diamonds in the rough with late-round steals and undrafted gems like Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott.
Previous years have seen Josh Wilson and Pernell McPhee named as Secret Superstars for the team, with Wilson having moved on to have two up-and-down seasons for the Washington Redskins, never reaching the level of his 2010 season in Baltimore.
McPhee, on the other hand, saw his second season hindered by injury, especially early in the year, but recovered to finish the season well with 17 total pressures from Week 13 through the playoffs, and figures to continue to be an important role player for the Ravens going forward.
So who gets the honor this year? Well, despite having a few players step up down the stretch, there was one player who stood out among them all, starring in a backup role. That was rookie running back Bernard Pierce.
Starting Out Slow, Finishing Strong
Drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of Temple, Pierce entered the season as the primary backup behind starter Ray Rice, replacing the retired Ricky Williams. Despite this, he saw only 30 carries in the seven games he played during the first half of the season. That’s not to say he didn’t impress though, averaging 4.03 yards after contact of those 30 carries.
The signs that he was worthy of a bigger role were evident even during a four-carry performance against the Dallas Cowboys, with Pierce forcing three missed tackles and averaging 5.5 yards after contact.
His strong performance in the first half of the season was obviously noticed by the men who matter in Baltimore, as his role began to grow the later in the season we went. This lead to him racking up 586 of the 734 rushing yards he produced all year, including the playoffs, from Week 10 onward.
With 33 missed tackles forced as a runner, and a further four as a receiver, he finished the year with an Elusive Rating of 75.7. That number put him third among all running backs that saw at least 25% of their team’s carries, bettering even Adrian Peterson, albeit on a much smaller sample size.
Room to Grow
While his rookie season was pretty impressive, there’s still plenty of improvement required from Pierce if he wants to develop into a three-down running back. We didn’t get to see much of him as a receiver, which is to be expected when you’ve got a player like Ray Rice atop the depth chart. Despite forcing four missed tackles from eight receptions, we really need to see more of him in that role to find out if he can truly be a threat as a receiver out of the backfield.
The biggest area of concern from his rookie year was in pass protection, as it was the only area of his game where he finished with a negative grade. Allowing a sack, a hit and three hurries might not seem like much, but coming on just 38 pass blocking attempts it was simply too much pressure to permit.
That’s likely part of the reason he saw such little action as a receiver, with his pass blocking enough of a liability to limit him on obvious passing downs. Here’s hoping he can improve on that in his second season in the league and give the Ravens even more reason to keep him on the field going forward.
Stealing Carries From Rice?
There’s no doubting that Ray Rice is a bigger threat than Pierce as a receiver out of the backfield, with Rice reeling in over 60 receptions in each of the past four seasons. However, when you look at the pair purely as runners, it might surprise you to learn that Pierce is the more productive.
We’ve already highlighted how impressive he was at forcing missed tackles but, putting it in context, he finished the regular season with 21 missed tackles forced as a runner compared to Rice’s 20. This was despite Rice seeing 149 more carries than his rookie counterpart.
On top of that, Pierce averaged 1.12 more yards after contact per carry than Rice. Simply put, he did more than Rice beyond the help of their offensive line and, all in all, was a better pure runner. The problem for Pierce is that he needs to work on the other aspects of his game and improve enough that the Ravens can trust him on the field regardless of the situation. That would allow him to see even more touches offensively and grow into a much bigger part of the Ravens’ offense.
Despite those concerns, there are plenty of reasons to expect Pierce to improve on what was still an impressive rookie season. It may have been on a limited sample size, but Pierce produced and gained yards beyond the work of his offensive line all throughout the season as opposed to just one game skewing the numbers.
He may be unlikely to unseat Rice as the man atop the running back depth chart in Baltimore, but a bigger role than he had at the start of 2012, and even late in the year, seems inevitable as we head toward the 2013 season. It’ll be up to Pierce to continue to produce as he did and, if he does, he won’t be considered a secret for much longer.
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