The State of the Baltimore Backfield: Should We Expect Much From Ravens Running Backs?

After telling you that Ray Rice sucks, is there actually any value in another Ravens' runner?

I’ve learned from my work in theatre that sometimes things happen you cannot have planned for: if you were the director of a play and your lead actor showed up drunk on opening night, belligerently insisting that he’s fine to get onstage and perform, what would you do?

To save your show, you’d have to pull him. But then what? Who do you turn to, to replace your Romeo? The other main characters are too important doing what they do, so you have to go to the ensemble. It’s a risky move, but if one of them knows the lines and has paid attention in rehearsal, you just might pull it off.

This is the situation the Baltimore Ravens find their backfield in with the now-suspended Ray Rice unavailable to them for the first two games of the 2014 season. Even if he was playing, as we so eloquently described here at numberFire last week, he’s been pretty terrible lately. Head coach John Harbaugh will need to call up an understudy. Who will emerge from the Ravens’ ensemble to spell their leading man, and can he carry the show?

Ain’t Misbehavin’

Before a show gets to the spotlight and the curtain opening, it needs a good script. If the script is terrible, no one will care how talented the actors are; it will still be a terrible show. In the same way, if an offensive scheme is useless, the players within it will be useless as well, no matter how talented they are. So, how have the Ravens’ run game playwriting abilities translated over the last few years, and can new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak put in even more pizzazz for this backfield?

To examine this, we need to look at our numberFire signature metric: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure of how much a player’s actions on the field advance his team’s chances of scoring at any given moment in a game. We will be looking at the Rushing NEP – that is, NEP gained or lost from any rushing play by a team or player – for Baltimore (and Kubiak’s former team, the Houston Texans).

I compiled both the Ravens’ and Texans’ rushing results in our metrics in each of the last five seasons and compared them. The table below shows the Ravens’ rankings in offensive value via the ground game since 2009.

YearRush PlaysRun/Pass RatioAdj. Rush NEPAdj. Rush NEP/Play

Keep in mind that Adjusted Rushing NEP means the same thing as Rushing NEP, but the Adjusted Rushing NEP fixes the value for strength of schedule. Some interesting trends to note: from 2009 to 2012, the Ravens were one of the most consistently run-heavy teams, both in plays run and run-to-pass ratio. This led them to three top-half of the league finishes in Adjusted Rushing NEP ranking through that time. They’ve trended steadily away from being a very run-focused team, however, and their most ineffective and inefficient rushing season not coincidentally occurred at the nadir of their running focus.

We now look at the Houston Texans in the same regards. Do Kubiak’s tendencies indicate anything about how usage in this backfield may change?

YearRush PlaysRun/Pass RatioAdj. Rush NEPAdj. Rush NEP/Play
200921st24th 29th 28th
201019th23rd 3rd 3rd
20111st2nd6th 7th
20125th9th21st 21st
201322nd26th27th 27th

The first thing to notice is that the Texans under Kubiak have had the opposite historical tendencies to the Ravens with regards to play selection. Aside from last year, when Arian Foster was sidelined for half of the year, the Texans had leapt upward in their utilization of the running game. When Kubiak has a quality runner, he makes sure to use him, as we've seen with Foster's nearly 390 opportunities (rush attempts plus receiving targets) per season between 2010 and 2012.

The one thing that is concerning, however, is if Kubiak's rushing offense works well with lesser talent. Foster's two injury-derailed seasons were 2009 and 2013, the two lowest Adjusted Rushing NEP years of the Texans' last five. Perhaps it's unfair to compare Ben Tate to Arian Foster in at all the same stratosphere of talent, but that's exactly the difference in natural talent between Rice and the Baltimore backups.

Recent trends in both teams (as well as the suspension of one star player) may lead to lesser usage of the run game, reducing its overall value, and I believe there are legitimate questions about the effectiveness of Kubiak's scheme carrying players or players like Foster elevating the game plan. Still, there will be opportunity for someone to step into the limelight, and opportunity makes or breaks you in this league.

Who will seize the reins?

A Chorus Line

The Ravens current choices from their depth chart (according to OurLads) stack up as such: incumbent backup Bernard Pierce, fourth-round rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, longtime change-of-pace back Justin Forsett, 2013 undrafted rookie Cierre Wood, and 2014 undrafted rookie Fitzgerald Touissant.

These give gentlmen have accumulated 2,669 NFL rushing yards on 610 attempts, and more than 60 percent of that comes from Forsett’s five-year career. Basically, there's very little practical experience in these remaining ensemble members.

The most likely understudy is Bernard Pierce, who has experience with the system currently in place. Another potential boon is the transition to Kubiak’s cleaner and more efficient zone-blocking scheme, which Pierce has experience in as well from his time playing at Temple in college.

It certainly couldn’t hurt, as Pierce was our second-worst running back by Rushing NEP in 2013. The offensive line played absolutely atrociously with Jim Caldwell’s version of the zone-blocking scheme, and Pierce’s already low -0.07 Rushing NEP per attempt from 2012 plummeted to a horrendous -0.21 (tied for the fifth-worst mark among rushers with 150 or more carries since 2000). Pierce will likely be given the first crack at early down work, but we saw his ineffectiveness at play last year, as did the coaching staff. What if he can’t hack it?

Taliaferro, who was facing his own legal charges earlier this offseason, has a physical profile that leaps off the page and tape. Standing 6’0”, weighing 229 pounds, Taliaferro ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, along with blistering three-cone and short shuttle drills, not to mention an explosive 34-inch vertical jump. He was a small-school product, coming from Coastal Carolina, but he carried the load there quite well and emerges from – coincidence? – a zone-blocking scheme. Taliaferro could be a nice dark horse candidate to win this lead job for the beginning of the season, as he profiles the most like a Gary Kubiak lead back after Pierce.

Forsett seems the only other likely competition, but that is likely to be more on passing downs. He's a solid receiver out of the backfield (0.25 career Reception NEP per target) compared to Pierce (0.10) and the others, so expect to see him work in more as a change-of-pace.

There's little to no clarity in this backfield situation heading into the year. Veteran deference indicates that Pierce and Forsett will work in a committee early, but if Pierce falters, I expect to see Taliaferro out there sooner rather than later. Forsett will likely be just a third-down option unless all else fails for early-down work. Taliaferro may simply be more appealing because he is an unknown commodity, but I believe he is likely to be the most efficient back of these backups.

However, if the trends of Kubiak's offense and the Ravens' own are any indication, it may not matter all that much who the lead back is in Baltimore; there will be little work and less efficiency to go with the title. Ray Rice will also return in Week 3 from suspension, so unless someone makes a big impression, they will likely let him take another crack at the job. These understudies may not be handsome options, but someone will have to step up and take the spotlight for a short while. As they say in the theatre: “The show must go on!” As rough as it may be.