Bernard Pierce has shown plenty of promise his first two years in the NFL. He was a key piece during the postseason run to Super Bowl XLVII and he's pushed starter Ray Rice for carries the last two years.
But for all the potential Pierce has shown, he has never been *the guy. *
Pierce will start Sunday in the season opener against the Bengals with Rice suspended the first two games, and much of the responsibility will fall on Pierce to be the bell-cow in Rice's absence.
"I'm as excited as I can be, but at the end of the day I can't really overthink it," Pierce said. "I just have to make sure I stay mentally locked in and focused because this could possibly be my only shot. I just have to make it count."
Sunday's game will be the second start of Pierce's career, as he also started once last year when Rice was hurt. Pierce has lived in Rice's shadow for the first two years of his career, but he's still racked up 260 carries for 968 yards and three touchdowns.
"We've seen him do it before," All-Pro right guard Marshal Yanda said. "He's doing the right things in practice. He's working hard and that's what you need to see. He's got the legs and the ability to run the football, and we've got all the confidence in the world in him."
Pierce had a stellar training camp and preseason as he prepared to take on a starting role to open the year. He lost about 30 pounds leading up to training camp, and he ran for 89 yards and 21 carries and a touchdown in limited preseason snaps.
He told reporters that this is "definitely" as good as he's felt going into a season.
"I feel agile, like a cheetah," Pierce joked. "I feel light on my feet."
A concern with Pierce coming into this week was that he suffered a concussion against the Washington Redskins in the third preseason contest. The concussion was considered minor and Pierce was back on the practice field as a full participant this week.
Pierce has never missed a game during his first two NFL seasons, but he did have offseason shoulder surgery and has been banged up during his career.
"I tore my labrum and my rotator cuff last year – that's a pretty serious injury. And I caught a helmet-to-helmet hit last week. You can't prevent that," Pierce said. "Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but I think – matter of fact, I know – I'm durable."
Much was made last season about the overall struggles of the running game, as the Ravens ranked 30th in the league in rushing yards. The problems ranged across the board, and that now seems a distant memory based on what the Ravens have shown in the preseason. With new Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak in Baltimore, the Ravens led the NFL in rushing yards during the preseason and look poised to get back on track in 2014.
"We're definitely confident as an offensive whole," Pierce said. "It's definitely going to be exciting to see what the offense does in the first week. All we can do is just keep getting better in the run game."
In addition to Pierce getting his chance this week, veteran Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaffero are both expected to see reps in Rice's absence.
"It's a huge opportunity. They come once in a lifetime," Forsett said. "I'm preparing like this is going to be my last game. I'm going to go out there and give it everything I have – energy and passion – and just go out there and play with my hair on fire."
The game could be considered a bit of an audition for Pierce and the other running backs, and while they acknowledged the importance of this opportunity, Pierce stressed that he's not making too much of it.
"You can put it that way," Pierce said, "but it's just another game to me."