- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- As you probably well know, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice earlier this summer was suspended for the first two games of the season for allegedly knocking out his now-wife in a Las Vegas hotel elevator.
The first of those two games is Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals visit to kick off the 2014 regular season.
With Rice last year, the Ravens' offense was stagnant. Without him, it was similarly abysmal. Baltimore's rushing offense was the worst in the NFL, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry. Rice and his top backup, Bernard Pierce, had two of the four worst rushing averages in the league in 2013. Rice averaged 3.08 yards per carry and Pierce averaged 2.87.
So the question is: Will life really be easier for the Bengals without Rice?
Bengals cornerback Adam Jones doesn't care who is running for the Ravens. His focus hasn't changed. Jones still wants his defense to make Baltimore one-dimensional, and force it into playing the way that it did last season.
"One person don't make a team," Jones said. "Of course [Rice] helped his team a lot, but they have a good stable of backs over there.
"Hopefully we can stop the run and make them throw the ball. I don't think they're going to want to throw the ball 70 percent of the time, so if we can make them throw the ball 70 percent of the time, hopefully we can come out in a good situation."
He might be onto something.
When the Bengals and Ravens last met, in the 2013 regular-season finale, Joe Flacco attempted 50 passes in a game where Baltimore mostly trailed. The Ravens ran a total of 66 plays that day, meaning more than 75 percent of its plays were in the air.
Turnovers and poor rushing hurt the Ravens in that game. Along with amassing 47 yards on 11 rushes, Flacco connected with Bengals defenders for three interceptions.
As players and coaches on both sides will caution, though, the current offense in Baltimore is a different one. Gary Kubiak came from Houston this offseason to become the Ravens' offensive coordinator, and he brings with him some of the running-game success the Texans had in recent seasons with Arian Foster. In order to get an idea of what to expect from Kubiak, the Bengals spent part of the offseason and part of their preparation time this week looking at old Texans film to see how Houston backs stretched the field toward the sidelines before blocking schemes get Foster and others to turn upfield for big gains.
"You've just got to stay in your gaps," Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. "They run it pretty good at Houston. They run it pretty good at Baltimore, as well. Everybody just has to stay in their gaps and be prepared for the back to cut it out or to bounce it."
Statistically, Pierce has been best during his young career using his 220 pounds to push the ball into the defensive line's interior, running right up the middle. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he averaged 3.73 yards per carry last season when he'd run up the middle. Whenever he'd hit the outside, he was less successful, averaging 2.76 yards. The year before, when he had notably better numbers as a rookie, Pierce still was slightly better running inside the guards than he did outside the tackles. He averaged 4.66 yards per carry up the middle in 2012 and 4.13 yards on the edges that same year.
It's the 2012 Pierce whom the Bengals are expecting Sunday. It's that Pierce whom they believe will make Rice's absence a non-factor.
"He's a starting-quality running back," Bengals safety George Iloka said. "He's a little bit different, bigger obviously, and he has a little more wiggle. Watching him on film, we just have to tackle and run to the ball and swarm."
And make the Ravens pass.