When the Baltimore Ravens were able to woo veteran fullback Vonta Leach back to Baltimore during the offseason, at the time the signing looked like a steal.
The best fullback in football still available after being cut by the team meant advantage Ravens, right?
Looking back, a warning sign should have been sent when there was almost no interest in Leach on the open market. It’s not often a player of his caliber is available for anyone to scoop up, and conventional wisdom said he would have signed by a fullback-needy team in just a matter of days.
Well, here’s the catch: is there such a thing as a fullback-needy team anymore?
It appears the other 31 NFL teams realized that when Leach was a free agent, and now the Ravens are likely realizing the same thing.
Leach – despite his cap value of 1,470,000 for the 2013 season – has seen minimal playing time (226 total snaps according to Pro Football Focus, after playing 465 in 2012 and 585 in 2011). And when he has been on the field, the results have been poor to say the least.
Not only has Leach’s performance dipped since last season, but his playing time has been sparse mainly due to the predictability of the offense when he’s on the field.
It’s 2013 – when traditional fullbacks are on the field, defenses can all but assume the play call is a run play. Now, predictability isn’t the culprit in and of itself; teams with good offensive lines can impose their will and run the ball whether the opponent is expecting it or not – as we’ve seen time and again in 2013, the Ravens are NOT that team.
That is a problem the Ravens have had when using Leach, and it’s one of the reasons why the run game has been so poor this season, particularly in short-yardage situations. Not only does the defense know what’s coming, but they KNOW – based on watching film of the Ravens – that they can stop it.
Don’t think they’re predictable? In a Baltimore Sun article yesterday, Mike Preston quoted a team source as saying that the Pats knew EXACTLY what was coming more often than not:
According to a team source, the Ravens were so predictable on offense Sunday that the Patriots were calling out their plays at the line of scrimmage. Apparently, when the Ravens were passing, New England was using the term “airplane” and when it was a run, they yelled “car.”
“It was pathetic,” the source said. “It still comes down to execution, but you do need the element of surprise. We’re giving a lot of things away and it hasn’t gotten better throughout the year. Our play calling has been poor.”
Here’s a look at why using Leach has been an almost lost cause this year, and why the Ravens have only used him for a total of eight plays over the past two games.
Leach’s performance has declined, but that may be more of a product of the system than his actual on-field play. That’s not to say he hasn’t disappointed, however.
Against the New York Jets, the Ravens line up in a rare I formation, which has almost exclusively meant a run play for the offense this season.
Leach, Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda all fail to seal their men out of Bernard Pierce’s running lane, and Pierce gets swallowed up for almost no gain.
The main reason for Leach’s lack of productivity and near-nonexistent playing time is because having him on the field during Baltimore’s “heavy” packages is pointless.
In fact, the “heavy” packages are basically a non-starter, due to the offensive line issues we’ve been talking about since September.
Time and again this season the Ravens have brought rookie tackle Ricky Wagner in for run plays, and the result, for the most part, has been more of the same – little-to-no running room.
That’s partly because the fact that when Wagner is in the game is basically the Ravens’ way of saying “Hey guys, we’re running the ball!” Of course, it’s also partly due to, again, more poor execution on the part of the OL.
Opposing defenses have loaded the box against Baltimore’s heavy packages, which leads to almost no chance of gaining yards.
Against the Chicago Bears, with Leach on the field as well as Wagner and tight end Ed Dickson, the Bears know this is a run play.
Nothing makes it more obvious that the defense expects a run play than when they position nine in the box.
Before quarterback Joe Flacco even hands running back Ray Rice the ball, every single Bears defender has already reacted to where the run play is going.
Since it’s an obvious run play before the Ravens even snap the ball, one of the selling points of where the play is going is by watching where Leach goes off the snap.
The Ravens hardly ever run the opposite way of where Leach is blocking, and watching his first step sells the run play.
Has anything good come from this package this season?
It’s great that the Ravens have made an effort to get Wagner on the field periodically in case he needs to step in at one of the tackle positions next season, but right now, the packages are only hurting the offense.
Wagner has actually played well as a run blocker; however, the package telegraphs a run play from the start, so no Ravens offensive player benefits.
I formation plays – regardless of whether an extra lineman is in or not – are usually the only times Leach touches the field.
It doesn’t help Leach’s cause that the Ravens have been running a lot of pistol-formation plays this season, which makes it impossible to get him on the field.
Ravens fans are all too familiar with this formation, but just as a refresher, this is an example of the pistol.
Not exactly a way to get Leach playing time.
Looking toward next year, Leach’s cap hit rises to $2,330,000. Given his performance and lack of value this season, it wouldn’t be farfetched to think he may not be in a Ravens uniform in 2014.
And just for the heck of it, let’s play a game.
Against the New England Patriots in a goal-to-go situation, the Ravens bring in Leach, Dickson, Wagner and even offensive lineman Jah Reid.
Seven offensive linemen, a tight end and a fullback.
Did the Ravens score on this play?
It’s been obvious all season that the Ravens have problems up front – even a fullback as skilled as Vonta Leach can’t be a difference-maker when the heavies in front of him get absolutely no push.