Much has been made about the resurgence of the Baltimore Ravens offense, particularly the offensive line.
The 2013 season may go down as the worst collective performance by a Ravens offensive line in team history, but 2014 couldn’t be any more different.
Baltimore’s rejuvenated offense (the team is tied for fifth in the NFL with 27.3 points per game), can largely be credited to consistent blocking up front, a strong run game (fourth in the league in rushing yards with 797) and quality play from quarterback Joe Flacco.
But what is one of the constants that makes both the run game and pass game work so well for the Ravens?
That would be a certain second-year fullback named Kyle Juszczyk, whose combination of blocking ability and value as a receiver has made him an unsung hero for Gary Kubiak’s offense. He’s been referred to by one team source as the Ravens’ Swiss Army knife.
The arrival of Kubiak made the outlook positive for Juszczyk, whose receiving ability resembles former Kubiak counterpart in Houston, fullback/tight end James Casey.
Now six games into Juszczyk’s first season as an NFL starter, it has become apparent that he’s the perfect fit for the offense, as many thought.
His initial value to the Ravens was as a fullback/tight end hybrid due to his receiving ability.
But it turns out Juszczyk offers much more than just some pass-catching prowess.
Take the start of Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for example.
On the first play of the game, Juszczyk’s receiving ability and physical play (one of his best traits) were both on display.
Running a play action pass play, Juszczyk first needs to lay down a block on a linebacker to sell the play fake.
Juszczyk’s block attempt sells the play fake well, and on the block, he successfully takes out the Bucs defender (and himself) as both fall to the ground.
Notice how Flacco is already readying to throw while Juszczyk is falling to the ground after his block.
You’d think this would take him out of the play as a receiving option, right?
Juszczyk gets back on his feet, creates more than enough separation from the linebacker and becomes wide open in the flat for an easy reception.
Throw in a little drop of the shoulder at the end of the play for good measure and the result is a gain of 18 yards.
Here’s what we understood about Juszczyk as an unproven player entering the 2014 season: reliable receiver, ideal safety valve in the flat and physical with the ball in his hands.
The lesser known was his blocking ability, mainly because he wasn’t quite a traditional fullback at Harvard and he hadn’t proved himself yet against NFL defenses.
It’s safe to say that by now, there should be few questions about Juszczyk’s blocking ability.
Take the very next play after his reception above for proof.
On a run play to the right side, running back Justin Forsett follows Juszczyk’s lead as the fullback is the last one to take on an unblocked Bucs defender (most of the offensive line is doing a fine job).
A missed block attempt on Juszczyk’s part would ruin a perfectly developing rush attempt for Forsett.
Juszczyk successfully wipes out the linebacker, which gives Forsett plenty of run lane options.
Forsett is patient enough to wait for Juszczyk’s run lane to open up, as the fullback completely takes out the linebacker by sending him to the ground with a violent block.
This allows Forsett to slip past Juszczyk and into an open lane on the right.
The end result? A 52-yard gain for Forsett.
To go from catching a pass for 18 yards to supplying a play-changing block on consecutive plays goes to show just how versatile and valuable Juszczyk is.
His blocking is just as important as any of the offensive linemen when it comes to running the football, and the consistent blocking that Juszczyk has displayed this season has been a key factor in the revival of Baltimore’s rush attack.
He’s not just a head-on, physical blocker in confined spaces, either. Juszczyk is athletic enough to come across a run play and make a backside block to allow the running back to cut back across the offensive line.
This was evident in Week 4 against the Carolina Panthers.
On a run originally designed to go right, Juszczyk must reach the second level in timely fashion to take out linebacker Luke Kuechly, who’s already in pursuit.
As the running back, Forsett, begins to cut back across the play, Juszczyk has engaged with Kuechly and begun his block.
Juszczyk doesn’t have the angle on Kuechly to get fully in front of him, but he positions himself well enough as Forsett follows Juszczyk’s block.
Juszczyk sticks with the block long enough to allow Forsett to successfully execute his cut back and run past Kuechly unscathed.
While Juszczyk only has six games of NFL experience on offense to his name, it’s hard not to see the potential of a complete fullback.
Considered a dying breed in the league nowadays, many “fullbacks” are receivers first and blockers second. That’s if the offense even uses a fullback regularly. Not all teams do.
But Juszczyk is one of the few exceptions to the trend. When drafted by the Ravens, it was his receiving ability that was the initial draw.
Now, though, he’s already proving himself as a difference maker as a lead blocker. Juszczyk’s athleticism and violent playing style should bode well for him as he continues to gain experience on offense.
The Ravens have had recent success when it comes to sending fullbacks to the Pro Bowl (Le’Ron McClain and Vonta Leach).
Could Juszczyk follow a similar path?