It's audition time for Pierce

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens running back Bernard Pierce was reluctant to describe the next two games as an audition. But it is.

Pierce can deny it. He can downplay it. The fact of the matter is, with Ray Rice serving a two-game suspension, Pierce gets the rare opportunity to show he can handle the load as an NFL starting running back.

It's Pierce's job to break tackles and long runs to the point where the Ravens have a tough decision to make when Rice is eligible to return in Week 3. If he doesn't capitalize on Rice's absence, it's uncertain when he will get another chance to prove he can be a featured back.

"I'm excited as I can be," Pierce said. "At the end of the day, I can't really overthink it. I have to make sure I stay mentally locked in and focused because this could possibly be my only shot. I got to make it count."

Chances have been fleeting when you're backing up Rice. Pierce has made one start in two seasons with the Ravens, and he's only received more than 15 carries in three games.

Despite Pierce's limited playing time, the Ravens are confident that they can run the ball with Pierce. He has looked the most comfortable of all the backs in Gary Kubiak's one-cut system during training camp and the preseason. A big and quick back, Pierce excels at running in between the tackles.

"We took him as high as we did for a reason," coach John Harbaugh said of Pierce, a 2012 third-round pick (84th player taken overall). "He's got talent. He's tough. He works really hard. We've all seen him carry the ball at his best. We just want to see him at his best."

The knock on Pierce has been his injury history. In Pierce's two-year career, he has been on the injury report for 10 weeks for back, ankle, knee, thigh and toe issues.

Pierce was limited all spring because of offseason shoulder surgery, and he missed the preseason finale with a concussion. Still, he's never been sidelined for a regular-season game.

"Everybody is entitled to their own opinion," Pierce said. "I tore my labrum in my rotator cuff. Obviously, that's a pretty significant injury. I caught a helmet-to-helmet last week. You can't prevent that. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. But I think -- matter of fact, I know -- I'm pretty durable."

Pierce has more to shake than an "injury prone" label. Like many Ravens' offensive players last season, Pierce endured a nightmare season, averaging 2.9 yards per carry.

Now, Pierce is in a new running scheme and a new body. He lost 26 pounds this offseason to get down to 222 pounds.

"I feel good," Pierce said. "I feel light on my feet. I feel agile like a cheetah."

There are few tougher challenges these days than trying to run against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens' season-opening opponent. The Bengals allowed 96.5 yards rushing per game last season, which was the fifth-best in the NFL. That was without defensive tackle Geno Atkins in the final seven games.

"Bernard is a very good downhill runner," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "You have to get in great position and really do a great job of tackling. He's a strong, strong runner."

If Pierce is productive in the first two games, the Ravens then would have a difficult decision between sticking with a hot hand or giving the job back to Rice. If Pierce doesn't make a major impact, he may play out the final two years of his deal as a backup.

Asked if he considered this an audition, Pierce said, "You can put it that way. It's another game to me."