In a league with fewer fullbacks, Ravens' Juszczyk continually shows his worth

The NFL's official website described Kyle Juszczyk's 10-yard touchdown run in Sunday's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers as gravity-defying after he brushed off an attempted tackle by free safety Mike Mitchell, put his left hand in the turf to avoid going to the ground, and dove into the end zone.

The Ravens fullback, who was schooled at Harvard University, preferred a different lesson in physics.

“I always try to be the hammer, not the nail, as my college coach always used to say,” Juszczyk said of his collision with Mitchell. “I tried to kind of bring it to him as he tried to tackle me.”

Juszczyk has had to break down a couple walls in his path to the league. Convincing scouts, coaches and general managers that a product of a Football Championship Subdivision program from a conference known more for its acumen than its athletics could play was one. Flourishing at a position getting squeezed out in the pass-happy NFL was another.

But in four short years, the 25-year-old Juszczyk has done exactly that. He leads all fullbacks in catches and receiving yards in arguably his most successful season to date, and a week ago, his efforts were rewarded when he was named the AFC representative to the Pro Bowl at fullback.

“It's definitely been a meaningful season for me,” said Juszczyk, who is affectionately known as “Juice.” “I've been happy with my role this season, and I feel like I've been well utilized in our offense. All the personal accomplishments, they've meant a lot, and they've all been building toward our team goals.”

Juszczyk ranks fourth on the Ravens in receptions with 35 and sixth in yards with 265. But he is tied for fifth with wide receiver Kamar Aiken in targets with 47, which demonstrates the level of trust that quarterback Joe Flacco and the coaches have in keeping Juszczyk on the field.

“He's been extremely valuable,” coach John Harbaugh said last week. “He plays the fullback position, but he also is a very multiple type of player. You can give him the ball, he's great in pass protection, he can line up outside and run routes as an outside receiver. And not to minimize, but he's one of our best special teams players. He's just a core special teams player. He's excellent at that. So I think his value is very high.”

Still, Juszczyk plays a position that is slowly being phased out in the NFL. As of Tuesday, only 17 of the 32 teams in the league had a fullback on their active 53-man rosters, as many offense tend to go with “11 personnel,” an alignment with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. Juszczyk has played 440 snaps, while the next closest fullback, the New England Patriots' James Develin, has played 333 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Juszczyk spent much of the offseason studying and working with the tight ends just in case then-offensive coordinator Marc Trestman wanted to use single-back personnel groupings.

Tim Murphy, the head coach at Harvard who coaches the tight ends and H-backs, said Juszczyk had to study the assignments tasked to tight ends, H-backs, and wide receivers in the Crimson's up-tempo, no-huddle spread offense that emphasized one running back and two tight ends.

“He played them all, and that's one of the reasons he's one of the leading receivers in Harvard football history,” Murphy said. “You've got to be a versatile guy to play in our system. … We had two guys like him in the entire game, and that's based on the premise that they can play all of the positions, and Juice certainly did.”

Juszczyk is doing what he can to ensure that coaches continue to see a gain in employing fullbacks.

“Hopefully, this is just a trend,” he said. “But even with the other teams that don't [have fullbacks], they still use guys in that position. They use tight ends, sometimes defensive linemen or offensive linemen. But I still think there's a need for that role, and maybe that player isn't labeled a fullback, but there's still a need for that player. So hopefully in the near future, the fullback will make its way back into the NFL.”

The Ravens have thrived with Juszczyk. According to Pro Football Focus, the offense has averaged 4.0 yards per carry without Juszczyk on the field, and 5.0 per rush with him on the field. The league average with a fullback is 3.8 yards.

While he is happy to contribute in the passing game and was thrilled that his 10-yard touchdown run gave the Ravens a short-lived 27-24 lead with 1:18 left in the fourth quarter, Juszczyk is fully aware that his future in the league depends on his ability to block.

“When you're a fullback, you have to have that mentality of blocking first just because of the nature of the position,” he said. “Most of the time, that's the reason you're on the field. So if you do that well, your role can expand. So you kind of start with the run blocking, and if you can do well with that, other opportunities are given to you.”

Juszczyk's future will take priority after season's end. One of the Ravens' 11 unrestricted free agents after this year, Juszczyk can hit the open market when free agency begins on March 9.

“I've put a little thought into it,” he admitted. “Obviously, I can't think about it too much until the season is completely over, but when that time comes, I'll evaluate all options and see what's best for me and my family and go from there.”

Tight end Dennis Pitta, who is one of Juszczyk's closest friends on the team, rattled off Juszczyk's contributions to the Ravens before coming to a concise conclusion.

“He's a huge weapon, and obviously, his value on special teams, he's one of the best special teams players,” Pitta said. “So he means a lot to this football team, and when he goes into free agency, I hope we're smart enough to retain him.”

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