Bernard Pierce

Ravens running back Bernard Pierce sprints past Giants defenders last week. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / December 23, 2012)

The vision of Ravens rookie running back Bernard Pierce is clearer nowadays on the football field.

Following a more patient approach has paid dividends for Pierce, and the AFC North champion Ravens.

The third-round draft pick from Temple has emerged as a valuable backup to Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, rushing for 443 yards and a touchdown with an average of 5.2 yards per carry. Only a handful of rookie running backs selected in the 2012 NFL draft have been more productive than Pierce.

As the Ravens enter their final game of the regular season today against the Cincinnati Bengals, Pierce is giving the organization a glimpse of what he can do with a little experience, a healthy body and growing confidence.

During the fourth quarter of a 33-14 victory over the New York Giants last week, Pierce allowed his blockers to open holes before he bolted toward the right sideline and accelerated for a career-high 78-yard run.

"When Bernard first came in, he was raw and he was just a hard runner," Ravens running back Anthony Allen said. "Now, he understands the offense. He understands where the blocks are coming from, how the holes are developing.

"He's patient and he knows how to read defenses. He's putting everything together and running where he's supposed to and how he's supposed to. It's about growing and learning the game, and Bernard is doing that."

Pierce displayed a swiftness and skill that the powerful 6-foot, 218-pounder didn't seem to be on the verge of showing during an injury-plagued training camp, where he was hampered by problems with his hamstring. When he took the field early in the season, he rushed his decisions instead of being patient.

Now, it's a different story for a healthy Pierce and the Ravens' running game coming off its highest yardage total of the season with 224 yards against New York. Pierce rushed for a career-high 123 yards on 14 carries and Rice gained 107 yards.

The only rookie running backs, who were drafted this year, to gain more yards than Pierce are the Washington Redskins' Alfred Morris (1,413 yards), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Doug Martin (1,312 yards) and the Cleveland Browns' Trent Richardson (950 yards), and they're all starters.

Pierce has outshined and outgained Giants first-round pick David Wilson (283 yards), San Francisco 49ers second-rounder LaMichael James (76 yards), St. Louis Rams second-rounder Isaiah Pead (33 yards) and Denver Broncos third-rounder Ronnie Hillman (317 yards).

"Week in and week out, Bernard's getting better," Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach said. "He's a tough runner between the tackles and on the outside. He adds another extra dimension to the offense because he's a big-play guy, too. He's got it all. He takes coaching. If he keeps learning from myself, Ray Rice and [running backs coach] Wilbert Montgomery, he's going to be a very tough guy to stop."

Ahead of the pack

Among all rookie running backs Pierce ranks seventh in rushing yards behind Martin, Morris and Richardson, as well as Vick Ballard (736 yards), Bryce Brown (546 yards) and Darryl Richardson (475 yards).

And Pierce is in more of a complementary role than several of his fellow rookie backs who have out rushed him.

"People tell me about the stats, but I don't pay attention to them," Pierce said. "I'm here for the long haul. I want to be here as long as possible. I'm not worried about anything else."

Pierce prides himself on his hard-nosed running style, attacking linebackers with his shoulders and forearms with his legs churning behind his shoulder pads and helmet.

Although grinding out yards is his primary assignment, Pierce has become more of a versatile, productive presence.

"We want Bernard to be a complement to Ray, a very good complement," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said earlier this month. "They have different running styles. We think that helps us. To me, it's important to use both of them. We have confidence in both of them in all situations."

Heading into the last regular-season game, Pierce has rushed for one less yard than former Ravens backup running back Ricky Williams, who ended his NFL career last season with' 444 yards.