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As fullbacks become increasingly rare, Ravens' Vonta Leach stays relevant

FootballBaltimore RavensNFLRay LewisJoe FlaccoVonta Leach

When a noticeably slimmed-down Ray Lewis showed up at Ravens training camp in late July weighing less than he has since his rookie year in 1996, the linebacker had a simple explanation.

Throughout his Hall of Fame career, Lewis had watched the power running game gradually get pushed aside for spread offenses with precision passers in the shotgun and four or five nimble receivers — some being tall, athletic, matchup-busting tight ends — dotting the line of scrimmage.

"The game is changing," he said. "There ain't no more 250-, 260-pound fullbacks."

They aren't extinct yet, though.

Whenever Lewis scans the Ravens' sideline and spots Vonta Leach — a two-time All-Pro fullback who, with muscles bulging from his 6-foot, 260-pound frame, looks like half man, half rhinoceros — the 37-year-old can be thankful he doesn't have to worry about Leach ramming him all afternoon.

In Leach, the Ravens have the NFL's best fullback, according to his peers. But as they continue to creep out of the stone age of offensive football and appear to be determined to rely more on the arm of quarterback Joe Flacco this season, the Ravens must remind themselves to keep Leach involved, though even he acknowledges that the true blocking fullback is a dying breed.

"To be able to stay in this league as a fullback, you've got to be able to run block, catch the ball out of the backfield and pass block," Leach said. "You've got to bring more things to the table."

The responsibilities of the position have shifted since the days when Hall of Fame fullbacks such as Jim Brown, Larry Csonka and Franco Harris rumbled past the 1,000-yard single-season mark. In the ensuing few decades, fullbacks became mostly run blockers and occasionally touched the football (an exception being a fullback's role in the short passing game in West Coast offenses).

For example, Leach had just three carries in five seasons with the Houston Texans and none in his last two years there. He had 12 carries for 35 yards in 2011, his first season with the Ravens.

As college football teams abandoned the run-first, run-second and run-third option offenses and then started to stray away from pro-style offenses to spread attacks in the past 15 years, they used their fullbacks less and less. Around when Leach debuted with the Green Bay Packers in 2004, the receiver-heavy offenses became more prevalent in the NFL, making fullbacks less valuable.

Ovie Mughelli remembers when he was one of three fullbacks on the Ravens roster. He, Alan Richard and Harold Morrow were fullbacks when Jamal Lewis rushed for 2,066 yards in 2003.

"Now the only way you have two fullbacks on the active roster is if one of the fullbacks is a special teams Pro Bowl-type player, an ace out there, a madman," he said back in early August.

Last week, Mughelli was cut by the St. Louis Rams, who kept Brit Miller as their lone fullback.

"Everyone wants to see the ball in the air, and the fullbacks don't get that many reps right now," said Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, who played running back in the NFL for nine seasons. "It has changed. When I was in the league, it was always about run, run, run."

According to Pro Football Focus, Leach was on the field for 665 snaps in 2011 (as a comparison, Flacco played 1,244) and was a blocker on 497 of those plays. But the Ravens used their "21" personnel — two running backs and a tight end — more than any other team in the league and 80 percent of their running back carries came with two players in the backfield, according to Football Outsiders. Meanwhile, they ran only 21 percent of the time in one-back formations.

Leach's 27 touches last season — he had 15 catches for 69 yards — tied a career high. But more importantly, Leach bulldozed running lanes so Ray Rice could set career highs in rushing yards (1,364) and rushing touchdowns (12) and paved the way for both to the Pro Bowl. Though he says "every now and then, the dog do get a bone," Leach isn't begging for an expanded role.

"There's a lot of things we can do to get me on the field, but you've got to look at the makeup of this team," Leach said in his thick North Carolina drawl. "Do I need to be on the field more?"

But Leach, who is revered as a great teammate, also doesn't want to be on the field any less.

During training camp and the preseason, the Ravens experimented with an up-tempo offense that used a "sugar huddle," where the players don't huddle up in a circle, but instead quickly line up in a formation and wait for Flacco or the coaches on the sidelines to give them the play call. After Leach was used sparingly early in one preseason game, he barked in John Harbaugh's ear.

"He was a little testy about not being out there, which is what you want," the coach said.

But Greg Cosell, an NFL historian and analyst and senior producer at NFL Films, believes the Ravens can still utilize Leach and his diverse skill set whenever they use their sugar huddle.

By sometimes lining Leach out wide, Cosell says defenses must respond by putting a player on him. If it is a defensive back, it may create a mismatch for a wide receiver. If it is a linebacker, it likely means the defense is in man-to-man, tipping off the coverage. And to show the defense that Leach isn't just running dummy routes, they need to throw to him in the flat occasionally — even if it usually results in a minimal gain and groans from the offensive coordinators in the bleachers.

Make no mistake, though, Leach's punishing blocks are the reason the Ravens made him the NFL's highest-paid fullback last year with a three-year, $11 million contract. They are the reason why his NFL peers voted him as the 45th-best player in the league after the 2011 season. And they are the reason why Mughelli believes that Leach is one of the best fullbacks in NFL history.

"That guy hits like a Mack truck. He's fearless," said Mughelli, who will stay involved with his foundation, which teaches children in underserviced communities about the benefits of green living, until another team calls him. "He's like the Hulk. You won't like it when he's angry. I've known him for a couple of years, and I love that he plays the position like it's supposed to be played. … He's not apologizing for the violent way in which he plays the fullback position."

And as far as blocking fullbacks go, Leach is ahead of his time as much as he is a throwback.

Cosell vividly remembers a play from the Ravens' 29-14 regular-season win over the Texans last season when Leach sprang Rice for a 27-yard run that set up the game-sealing touchdown. As Leach ran ahead of Rice, he showed the agility and vision of a scatback, anticipating where Rice would cut and darting around the back of center Matt Birk to hammer linebacker DeMeco Ryans in the hole.

"He did about as good of a job as you can do as a lead blocker," Cosell said. "He couldn't just run straight up into the hole. He literally had to cut into the hole to get to the second-level linebacker. For what he does, he is as good as there is and has been for a number of years."

But is he the last of a dying breed? Will fullbacks still roam the NFL landscape a decade from now? Mughelli envisions a future world where hybrid fullbacks are like the tight ends of today. They will run like wide receivers, have the soft hands of tight ends while still blocking like Leach.

But Leach didn't want to speculate on that. His focus reaches only as far as this postseason.

"The teams that play into and late January, they have a fullback on their team," he points out.

Leach knows how valued he is in Baltimore, where there should still be plenty of smash-mouth in the playbook. He loves keeping his Ravens teammates loose, pulling pranks or squeezing into a Santa outfit during the holidays. And even if he plays only about half of the team's offensive snaps in 2012, he will still get opportunities to thump linebackers who aren't as lucky as Lewis.

"Player respect is really what you're after," said former NFL fullback Heath Evans, who is now an NFL analyst for Fox. "And I'm not sure we've seen anyone do it the way that Vonta does it. He's a guy that he doesn't really care about running the ball or catching it out of the backfield.

"He really embraces his role, which is trying to hurt linebackers. And he does it quite often."

matt.vensel@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mattvensel

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FootballBaltimore RavensNFLRay LewisJoe FlaccoVonta Leach
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