Fullback Vonta Leach remains punishing, even as his role on Ravens is diminishing

Veteran has mastered position that's becoming increasingly obsolete in pass-happy NFL

  • Ravens fullback Vonta Leach rumbles past the Browns' T.J. Ward for a 12-yard gain in the third quarter of their September meeting.
Ravens fullback Vonta Leach rumbles past the Browns'… (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore…)
November 16, 2013|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

You look at Vonta Leach and it's hard to avoid this conclusion: He was put on Earth to knock people over.

Even shorn of his pads, the Ravens fullback resembles a human battering ram — stout from his black cleats up to his boulder of a head.

Of course he became a fullback. The universe designed him to obliterate, not evade. And Leach has the outlook to match, equal parts fearless and selfless.

"You just can't give a damn," he said with a hearty laugh when asked to explain the fullback mentality. "You just can't care. You know your body's going to feel like crap all next week. But you know you're that tone-setter with the way you hit. I always embraced the role."

Yet here's the conundrum of Leach's current existence — he has mastered a job that's no longer in high demand. You couldn't find a finer specimen of fullback, but the position, at least as Leach plays it, is nearly extinct in the pass-crazy NFL.

Want to know what it was like to be the last Triceratops after the meteor hit? Leach is the man to ask.

"It's sad," said former Raven Sam Gash, who hails from the same line of block-first fullbacks. "Vonta's a bull in a ballet, and he might very well be one of the last."

The Ravens have shown a greater commitment to fullback than most NFL franchises. Before they signed Leach in 2011, they had Gash, Lorenzo Neal and Ovie Mughelli, all considered elite blocking backs. They were one of just three teams to pick a fullback — Leach's understudy, Kyle Juszczyk — in this year's draft.

Even so, Leach has watched his playing time dwindle in 2013. The Ravens have used more sets featuring at least three wide receivers. And in trying to jumpstart a weak running game, their coaches have turned not to Leach but to the spread-out pistol formation.

Leach has averaged just 18.6 snaps a game this season, according to statistics kept by Pro Football Focus. That's down from 29 a game in 2012 and 37 a game in 2011. Leach bottomed out when he got in for two snaps in the Ravens' Nov. 3 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh says Leach's performance isn't the primary reason.

"It's probably more about an evolving offensive scheme," Harbaugh said. "We do want Vonta in the mix, but where do you lean most heavily? Our formations have been more one back-type formations the last few weeks."

Ray Rice, who calls Leach the best lead blocker he's run behind, echoed Harbaugh's thoughts. "It's not because of Vonta," Rice said of the fullback's reduced role. "It's what the defenses are giving us. It's nothing he did. When Vonta gets in there, he's going to whack people."

Leach's reduced playing time was foreshadowed by the Ravens' offseason decisions to cut him and later bring him back at a significantly reduced salary.

But he isn't easily daunted. This is a starting backfield player who once endured a stretch of more than two seasons worth of games without carrying the ball. Between catches and handoffs, he has never touched the pigskin more than 30 times in a single year.

Leach doesn't see fullback as an obsolete position, more one that's merging with tight end. He believes his successors will have to catch more passes and be comfortable lining up in multiple spots. And he says it's on him to hold his job by making himself as versatile as possible.

"It is rough," he said of playing infrequently. "But at the same time, you always got to stay ready. There's going to be a time, a point, where you have to play 30-40 snaps, and you have to be ready."

The Fullback Club

Few admire Leach more than the other men who have walked in his unglamorous shoes. Fellow fullbacks see the way he spies a hole as adroitly as a tailback, the way he throws his 260-pound body into a linebacker with absolute conviction.

"There's a few that are just pure," said Daryl Johnston, a former Pro Bowl fullback with the Dallas Cowboys and current analyst for Fox. "It's a violent position. The job of the running back is to avoid contact but the job of a fullback is to initiate it. More than anything, it's a mentality."

Gash said that if he heard a fullback complaining about not touching the ball, he'd smack the guy in the mouth. It wasn't clear if the two-time Pro Bowler was kidding.

"Finesse guys, I don't get down with that," he said. "Once you get labeled a fullback, there's a mindset that goes with that. I absolutely feel a kinship with the other guys. You know the struggle to stay on a team, the concussions you can't talk about because you might get Wally Pipped."

Fullback wasn't always a spot for unselfish grunts. Marion Motley, Jim Brown and John Riggins were among the dominant rushers of their respective eras. But by the 1990s, Johnston led a wave of fullbacks who were primarily lead blockers but also caught passes out of the backfield. Johnston was respected enough that the NFL added a designated fullback spot to its Pro Bowl rosters.

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