It's time for the Ravens to bring back Vonta Leach

Baltimore lacks offensive toughness without veteran fullback

The Ravens were just finishing the short-yardage period at practice and rookie fullback Kyle Juszczyk had been getting stuffed like a turkey in preparation for Thanksgiving. He got rocked by safety James Ihedigbo and then by linebackers Arthur Brown and Bryan Hall.

It was such a dismal showing by the Ravens running game that Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs asked a question, but at the same time made a statement.

"Where is Vonta Leach when you need him?" asked Suggs, clearly sending a message to the media as well as the Ravens front office.

The Ravens need Vonta Leach.

They need him bad. It's way too early in the season to panic, but after the Ravens lost starting tight end Dennis Pitta for the season with a dislocated hip Saturday, there is now a sense of urgency to re-sign Leach.

General manager Ozzie Newsome doesn't need to grovel or cave into any of Leach's outrageous contract demands, but he might put off writing the Jonathan Ogden Hall of Fame presentation speech until later in the week.

It's time to get Leach into camp, and concede that the Pro Bowl fullback has some leverage.

The Ravens cut Leach last month in a salary cap move, basically haggling over $1 million. Leach wanted to retain the original $3 million he was expected to make this season while the Ravens wanted to drop it down to $2 million.

Leach walked away, but has since found out that fullbacks aren't highly valued in the pass-happy NFL anymore. It appeared that the Ravens had the upper hand and Leach would have to come back for less money, but then came Saturday, the day of reckoning in training camps.

It was the first full day of contact. First the Ravens lost Pitta, who was leaping to make a catch in the back of the end zone. Then later the Ravens discovered that they don't have a bonafide lead blocker in Juszczyk, who needs a few more pounds and a year or two in the weight room.

The Ravens have been in consistent contact with Leach ever since they cut him, but those talks probably have more meaning these days. Newsome might even be dusting off the old Temptations song, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg."

If the Ravens don't get Leach back, they could be in big trouble. Entering training camp, they were in search of a No. 2 receiver to complement No. 1 Torrey Smith, but so far none of the competitors — LaQuan Williams, David Reed, Deonte Thompson, Tandon Doss — have separated themselves from the pack.

Meanwhile Pitta, who had a breakout season last year with 61 catches for 669 yards, was having a great training camp and was becoming Joe Flacco's top weapon inside the red zone. In fact, there was a good possibility he might have led the Ravens in receptions this season.

But the injury changed that and maybe the chemistry of this team. Because of Flacco's success last postseason, the Ravens were expected to throw more in 2013. The Ravens had similar expectations in previous seasons under former coordinator Cam Cameron, but it never worked out. Fortunately, the Ravens always went back to the running game because they had Ray Rice and Leach the past two seasons.

That's why they need Leach again.

With him, they have a strong running game in the middle of the field. With him, they can attack the perimeter and get to the outside. Without Leach and Pitta, the Ravens will be limited inside the red zone because Torrey Smith doesn't have room to be a vertical threat and neither Rice nor Bernard Pierce can get around the corner.

The Ravens already saw that Saturday in practice, and coach John Harbaugh knows all good teams need to have some success running inside the red zone to be effective. Plus, Leach would allow the Ravens to use Juszczyk as a tight end, a position he is more presently suited for than fullback.

During two of the first three days of training camp, the Ravens' offense has played poorly. Left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie is in bad shape, and the team has been without two starting guards, Kelechi Osemele (hamstring) and Marshal Yanda (shoulder).

The addition of Leach is like having another lineman and tough guy on the field. In camp so far, the offense has gotten physically and verbally abused by the defense. That hadn't happened in recent years because the Ravens always had a Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin or Leach.

With Yanda and Osemele out, who do they have now?

Flacco is Mr. Quiet and Rice is Mr. Corporate. McKinnie is too busy sucking for air. The only person who talks back is Jacoby Jones, and nobody fears a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars."

Leach brings the work ethic, the reputation and the attitude. He gives the Ravens the perfect Plan B if Plan A fails.

But right now, we don't know where he is. We do know where he isn't, and that's in training camp. That needs to change.

Quickly.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

 
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