'Pounder' Leach will make impact in Ravens' running game

August 01, 2011|Mike Preston

When the Ravens agreed to a three-year contract with fullback Vonta Leach on Sunday, it was an indication of the team's offensive plans.

It was a statement.

The Ravens want to return to old-school football, where they grind a team with their defense and pound it into submission with a strong running game. Few players like collisions the way Leach does.

He's the Ravens' new crash test dummy.

"Fullbacks are like dinosaurs," running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said. "So when you get a chance to get a legitimate one, you've got to grab them. They are just not out there. This year, we must have looked at hundreds of them. They are no longer coming out of college football because of the Wildcat and spread offenses.

"We got what we consider a Raven; he is a pounder," Montgomery said of Leach. "As far as I'm concerned, he's like a lineman blocking for Ray Rice."

Signing Leach shows the Ravens have come full circle in their offensive approach. In the past two seasons, they got away from coach John Harbaugh's run-oriented roots and became infatuated with the strong arm of quarterback Joe Flacco.

The Ravens, though, never seemed comfortable with that style. They didn't know when to keep up the fast pace or slow it down. And when it came to securing a lead in the fourth quarter with a strong running game or getting the big yard in short-yardage situations, the Ravens had no punch.

Now, they have a home-run hitter in the 6-foot, 250-pound Leach.

"I'm very excited, and [I] watched what he did for Arian Foster," said Rice, the Ravens' star running back. "He is an amazing back, and he lays the wood on people. I can't wait to follow him. He is all about business and all about hard work."

And unlike former Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain, Leach, 29, won't complain about his rushing attempts. McClain made two Pro Bowl appearances during his four years in Baltimore but wanted the ball after last season, when he had only 28 carries for 85 yards.

The Ravens, though, had their own issues to settle. They thought McClain was a great hybrid fullback-running back, but those fullback collisions took a toll on him. He could stalemate with a lot of defensive players, but after tough, physical games, he often had neck, shoulder or leg injuries.

Leach can move players. He is the stereotypical thumper. If he can't meet a linebacker standing in the hole, he goes after one on a search-and-destroy mission.

"Coming off a Pro Bowl season and solid football play the previous three years, we're excited having a guy of this caliber," Montgomery said. "No. 1, he sees himself as a fullback. He doesn't have the run skills of Le'Ron, but we will still give him the ball and opportunities. He has had a few catches, but we're not going to ask him to catch a lot of passes. But we will ask him to pancake people."

The Ravens have had thumpers before in Sam Gash, Ovie Mughelli, Alan Ricard and Lorenzo Neal. Neal came to Baltimore during Harbaugh's and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's first season.

Back then, Neal ran onto the field, imitating the Juggernaut character in the X-Men. Three years ago, the Ravens powered up by using an unbalanced line and inserting an offensive lineman at tight end.

This is a good year for the Ravens to go back to old-school football. They have a lot of young receivers and tight ends and an offensive line that had trouble protecting Flacco last season.

The Ravens want to improve on last year's running game, which fell from the top five in 2008 and 2009 to 14th. They know they need to be able to take advantage of first-half leads against the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots with a strong second-half running game.

Leach puts them closer to fulfilling that goal. He is a blue-collar player who survived in the NFL as an undrafted rookie before bouncing around among several teams and eventually becoming the best fullback in the game during the past five seasons in Houston.

Leached cleared the way for Foster's league-leading 1,616 yards rushing last season. He was pursued by the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and New York Giants before coming to the Ravens.

"Hitting is part of what I do," Leach said. "It's the mentality of a fullback. You're going to go in there [and] hit somebody every single time, every single play. It's going to be like a car crash."

That kind of talk excites Rice.

"Everyone knows his reputation. I said I can probably trip and get 5 yards running behind him," Rice said, laughing.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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