Entering last season, the biggest question in the Baltimore Ravens backfield was just how many carries the emerging Bernard Pierce was going to steal from the consistently great Ray Rice.
That's a pretty good problem to have.
Unfortunately, things didn't quite shake out that way in Baltimore last season.
Thinking back to how this duo was considered one of, if not the, top tandem in the league before last season is hard to do because they were downright abysmal for many reasons.
Of the 47 running backs who secured at least 100 rushes last season, Rice finished last in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), and Pierce finished second-to-last. This means that of all the 100-attempt rushers last season, the Ravens combo added the fewest amount of points from carries for their team than any other backs with that type of volume.
Rice's Rushing NEP from his 214 carries was -38.48. Pierce, who tallied 152 carries, was nearly as bad at -31.90. Don't let the negative total alone completely scare you off. After all, the average Rushing NEP for this 47-running back subset was -5.23. Still, they were worse than Trent Richardson, whose Rushing NEP was -27.14.
On a per-carry average, Pierce replaced Rice as the worst back from the 100-carry group. Pierce posted a Rushing NEP Per Rush of -0.21, while Rice's -0.18 was tied for 45th with Andre Brown.
This decline wasn't necessarily a product of playing stout run defenses, either. The Ravens did play three of the top five teams in terms of Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP Per rush, which measures a defense's effectiveness stopping the run and is adjusted for strength of schedule. However, factoring in all the defenses the Ravens faced, the team finished 30th in Adjusted Rushing NEP Per rush. Their -0.12 was a far cry from the league average of -0.01.
To contextualize how drastic this drop off was, we can look at 2012, the season prior. That year, 42 running backs attempted 100 or more rushes. Rice finished eighth in Rushing NEP (8.65). Pierce finished 24th (-7.24). Rice was seventh in Rushing NEP Per Rush (0.03). Pierce, who attempted only 109 carries, was 28th (-0.07). Even with Pierce as a below-average runner according to our metrics, the Baltimore Adjusted Rushing NEP Per Rush was 0.03, 12th-best in the league.
So what went so wrong? And how can the Ravens fix it?
First and foremost, both Rice and Pierce did struggle through injuries last season. Things should be different this year if they can be on the field at full strength. The problem is that Rice faces the potential to be suspended by the NFL for some duration of the season. Pierce underwent shoulder surgery in late January this year, and is slated to return for training camp at the earliest.
But other than that, one of the noticeable issues with the Ravens - aside from one of the worst offensive lines in the league, of course - was their diversion to Joe Flacco, the big-money quarterback. Flacco experienced a huge uptick in drop backs between the two seasons: 566 in 2012 and 662 in 2013. He averaged 532.80 drop backs in his first five seasons, but this past year, he ranked fifth in drop backs in the league.
It was Flacco's worst season in his six-year career based on Passing NEP, which ranked 22nd among the 30 quarterbacks who dropped back to pass at least 300 times. The average Passing NEP of this subset was 40.23. Factoring out Peyton Manning's 278.52 mark (which was over 100 points higher than all other quarterbacks), the average was 32.01, and still well above Flacco's mark.
Flacco's voluminous, unproductive quarterbacking resulted in the 10th-highest pass-to-run ratio in the league (1.58 passes for every rush). In 2012, the Ravens were 19th in pass-to-run ratio, passing only 1.35 times per every rush. From 2008 to 2011, Flacco's Ravens posted similarly small pass-to-run ratios: 0.79, 1.17, 1.09, and 1.26. Essentially, a well-below-average passing game replaced an above-average rushing attack.
This trend should regress now that Gary Kubiak has taken over as offensive coordinator. As JJ Zachariason pointed out before, Kubiak and his zone-blocking schemes owned some of the best rushing seasons for teams over the past decade. In Kubiak's eight-year tenure as head coach, the Texans posted some of the lowest pass-to-run ratios and, with an increased focus on the run game, some of the best passing efficiency marks. With Matt Schaub, the Texans never finished lower than 14th in passing.
In order to shore up the offensive line for what should be a more run-heavy approach, the Ravens have brought in former Buccaneer Jeremy Zuttah who will start at center and play alongside Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda. Baltimore also drafted guard and center John Urschel in the fifth round of the NFL Draft for depth, and Kelechi Osemele is looking primed for a return from a herniated disc. These new acquisitions will add depth to the returning cogs on the offensive line and help replace Michael Oher, who's now a Titan, and ensure that the battle for starting jobs is an enticing storyline as we grow closer to the pre-season.
Considering Kubiak's affinity for a balanced attack and a positive influence on quarterback play, the running backs should be able to receive consistent carries, and Flacco has the opportunity to be efficient rather than prolific while having his favorite target, Dennis Pitta, back on the field and newcomer Steve Smith to utilize opposite Torrey Smith.
Which Running Back?
The big question in that last paragraph is who exactly those running backs will be. If Rice and Pierce do miss time or are unproductive from injury or otherwise, then the Ravens are down to four unproven backs: Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Shaun Chapas, and Cierre Wood.
While the explosive Forsett has been a player I've looked forward to every preseason since he was drafted in 2008, he's most identifiable by the infamous Thanksgiving Day touchdown against the Detroit Lions in 2012. He did play with Kubiak in Houston (as did Wood), but to me (and to the Ravens), the most intriguing name from the list is Taliaferro, not just because it's a slick name, but because the fourth-round back from Coastal Carolina is getting some attention during rookie camp.
Taliaferro's 1,729 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns (both of which were school records) earned him Offensive Player of the Year honors in his conference, but bigger things are in store for the big back (6'2" and 230 pounds) because he might be ready to be a three-down back if he can handle the workload.
He's shown the ability to run, evidenced by his production at Coastal Carolina. He's also shown athleticism. His 4.58-second 40-yard dash was only 19th best in the NFL Combine, but Taliaferro posted a top-five three-cone drill time (6.88 seconds) and a top-10 20-yard shuttle (4.22 seconds). If that still leaves anyone skeptical (and it understandably could), Taliaferro impressed the Ravens during the Senior Bowl as an all-around talent, focusing on not only his running but also his pass-catching and, most surprising for a young back, his pass protection ability.
The potential Taliaferro possesses along with Kubiak's track record for 1,000-yard rushers from unlikely sources makes for an exciting combination. Terrell Davis, a sixth-round pick in 1995 was a five-time 1000-yard rusher. Olandis Gary, a fourth-rounder, did it in 1999 in just 12 games. In 2000 and 2005, Mike Anderson did it. He was a sixth-round selection. Clinton Portis (AKA Sheriff Gonna Getcha, Southeast Jerome, Dolla Bill, Bro Sweets) did it twice in 2002 and 2003, the only second-rounder to do so for Kubiak. Lastly, Reuben Droughns eclipsed the mark in 2004.
Kubiak didn't have as much success as a head coach after inheriting Ron Dayne, but he did turn third-rounder Steve Slaton loose for 1,200 yards in 2008 and the undrafted Arian Foster for at least 1,200 rushing yards three consecutive seasons.
Kubiak kept a balanced approach in Houston, posting pass-to-run ratios of 1.22, 1.32, 1.36, 1.46, 1.43, 0.91, and 1.15 between 2006 and 2012 before injuries to Foster and Ben Tate forced the Texans to throw the ball 1.63 times for every rushing attempt this season, the seventh-highest mark in the league. Sticking to the run helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl just one year ago (when they posted a 1.35 pass-to-run ratio), so they should welcome the return to form.
Among Rice, Pierce, Taliaferro, and even Forsett, Kubiak should be able to find a 1,000-yard rusher behind the updated offensive line, allowing the Ravens to regain their status as one of the premiere ground games in the NFL. This will benefit Flacco, who can revert to a more balanced offense and fewer drop backs, and his replenished receiving corps.
Regardless of which back emerges through it all, the Ravens are primed for a successful rushing season, one that many expected to see in 2013. It may not be the hand-it-to-Ray-Rice theme Ravens fans have grown used to over the years, but all the elements are in place for the Ravens to go back to the Ravens of old and be a great rushing team again.