Bernard Pierce is ready for starting role

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Bernard Pierce learned how much attention is paid to an NFL starting running back after looking on Twitter following Saturday's practice.

It was reported that Pierce had walked off the field with a team doctor 30 minutes before practice ended, causing social media in Baltimore to explode. Pierce's Twitter account was overrun with comments such as "You suck" and "You're soft." Pierce, who left early because of effects from the heat, said he couldn't believe the response and blocked several critical fans.

His injury status, weight and play during training camp has been put under the microscope. He's no longer the backup running back. With Ray Rice suspended for two games, the Ravens are looking for Pierce to carry the load in the running game.

"I just want to show that I'm dependable and I can be counted on," said Pierce, who has one career start. "I just need a chance."

The biggest question is Pierce's durability, which is why not finishing practice Saturday became the news of the day. In his two-year career, he's been on the injury report for 10 weeks for back, ankle, knee, thigh and toe issues.

What often gets forgotten is Pierce has never missed a game. He played with a right shoulder injury last year that needed surgery after the season.

"It was pretty painful," he said. "That's what we've signed up for. You have to play through it."

Even though Pierce was limited throughout offseason workouts because of the shoulder surgery, he has been full speed all during training camp. He came out of Saturday's contact practice with no setbacks.

"My mindset coming out for the first day of camp is that I can't think about it," Pierce said. "When you start to think about, you start playing outside your game. So, it was just full go for me. The first time I had an inside run, it was head on into the pile. You can't think about it at all."

Pierce has been the most impressive running back through the first week of camp, and it's the result of hard work this offseason. After the shoulder surgery, Pierce's weight had increased to an "embarrassingly" 248 pounds. Now, he's down to 222 pounds.

The weight loss is most evident in Pierce's elusiveness in between the tackles. He can make better lateral cuts because he doesn't feel the weight as much on his knees.

"He has seized the opportunity," coach John Harbaugh said. "He's gotten himself prepared for this challenge in front him. He understands he's got a test in front of him. This is it right now."

The Ravens are not only trying to rebound from the worst rushing season in their history but they're learning a new running scheme. Under new coordinator Gary Kubiak, running backs are expected to show patience with the zone blocking before making one cut and head upfield.

This change is not much of a transition for Pierce. He ran in a similar system while at Temple.

"It's just trying to get the hang of it one more time again," he said.

Pierce, a third-round pick in 2012, played a key role in the Ravens' Super Bowl run as a rookie. Like many on the Ravens' offense last year, he didn't live up to heightened expectations.

He struggled mightily last season and wasn't decisive in hitting the line. He had 44 more carries than his rookie season but finished with 96 fewer yards. His yards per carry average dropped from 4.9 in 2012 to 2.9 in 2013.

"It definitely is motivating and also was humbling coming from the year before," Pierce said. "I think everybody's intentions this year is to climb back up the chart and show everybody that we can get this run game started and we're still the Ravens from 2012."