Leach's return provides insurance for uncertain offensive identity


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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Believe it or not, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome didn’t immediately get on the phone with fullback Vonta Leach to grovel and beg for him to return after the disappointing season-ending injury to tight end Dennis Pitta last weekend.
As was the case with newly-signed veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, the Ravens were already having discussions about bringing Leach back after releasing the three-time Pro Bowl selection less than two months ago. Newsome simply never panics, regardless of how troubling the loss of Pitta was to a passing game already facing major question marks at wide receiver with the offseason departure of veteran Anquan Boldin.
But the bruising blocker Leach’s return on a two-year deal is a critical insurance policy to have when you don’t know what your passing game is going to look like or whether it will be effective enough to win games consistently. The Ravens undoubtedly have a franchise quarterback who proved his worth with one of the finest postseason runs in NFL history, but Joe Flacco needs someone to catch the ball, too.
The combination of Pitta’s injury and the re-signing of Leach to a two-year deal have prompted many to suspect that the Ravens will lean more heavily on their running game, which features Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice and impressive backup Bernard Pearce. On paper, it’s difficult to disagree that the running game appears to be more of a sure thing than a passing attack that features Flacco and speedy third-year wideout Torrey Smith but not many proven commodities after that.
In the Flacco era, the Ravens have gradually moved away from a run-first mentality to open up a passing game that remained stagnant for more than a decade before the University of Delaware product arrived in Baltimore in 2008. The Ravens ran the ball 57.76 percentage of the time in Flacco’s rookie season, 47.85 percent in 2009, and 49.80 percent in 2010.
Since those first three seasons, their running play percentage has dropped out of the league’s top 10 with 45.76 percent in 2011 (13th in the NFL) and just 44.22 percent of their 2012 offensive plays (15th in the league).
With Boldin and Pitta now out of the picture, are the Ravens poised to return to their once-familiar profile of relying heavily on their running game and a revamped defense to lead them to victories?
“We don’t know,” Leach said. “Like I said, we never know what our identity is going to be until after training camp. We’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays. People are going to have to step up – that’s just always been the motto around here. ‘Next man up.’”
That motto has been uttered repeatedly over the years, most recently last season when the likes of Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Lardarius Webb went down with long-term injuries but were replaced admirably by Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and Corey Graham. But Pitta’s loss reaches beyond backup tight end Ed Dickson because of an underwhelming group of wide receivers that include only two known commodities in Smith and a deep-ball threat in Jacoby Jones.
Pitta was being groomed to replace Boldin in the slot, serving as Flacco’s go-to target on third down and an excellent red-zone option as he was over the last two seasons. It wasn’t unreasonable to predict a Pro Bowl season for Pitta playing a hybrid role of wide receiver and tight end in a contract year
Yes, Newsome, coach John Harbaugh, and the front office have spoken glowingly all offseason about the potential of Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, David Reed, LaQuan Williams, Tommy Streeter, and seventh-round wide receiver Aaron Mellette, but anyone fully confident in that group of players is taking a significant leap of faith based on a handful of cameo appearances in regular-season games for a few and only practice and preseason reps for the rest of the bunch.
The truth is no one really knows exactly what the offense is going to look like in coordinator Jim Caldwell’s first full season in charge. Make no mistake, the Ravens won’t be conjuring Woody Hayes’ “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy with Flacco under center, but the sixth-year quarterback may not receive his wish to throw the ball at will with so few targets to trust.
The question would then become whether the current offensive line that includes four starters from Super Bowl XLVII — the center spot is up for grabs with Gino Gradkowski the favorite over A.Q. Shipley — is up to the challenge of more run blocking and the physicality it involves.
Even the Ravens admit the offense is a work in progress, not knowing exactly who will be most involved. Newsome is always monitoring the market for potential trades and signings, but the prevailing thought is that it’s unclear whether there’s anyone available that’s undoubtedly better than what they already have and fits their need for a receiver who can work the middle of the field. As a result, Baltimore is content with continuing to evaluate their young wide receivers with the option of adding a veteran pass-catching target before the season opener on Sept. 5.
“We haven’t made any determination three or four days into training camp what our offensive personality is going to be,” Harbaugh said. “You always have to build your offense around your players. And you have to see how your players work together and what they do well individually and who emerges. The fact that [the Pitta injury] happened this early is probably something that makes it a little bit less difficult in that sense.”
In the days following Pitta’s injury, Dickson has impressed lining up at tight end and occasionally in the slot, making several long receptions and catching nearly everything thrown his way. However, the fourth-year tight end has struggled with catching the football consistently at different points in his young career, which is one reason why Pitta eventually supplanted him as the primary tight end in the second half of the 2011 season.
Just as they viewed Boldin’s departure, the Ravens won’t lean too heavily on Dickson alone to replace Pitta’s production, but the 126 receptions, 1,590 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns that Pitta and Boldin combined to provide last year will have to come from somewhere.
Finding that right combination won’t be easy and the Ravens understand that while reminding everyone that the month of August is just beginning. This is the time to see exactly what you have in Dickson and their young receivers while understanding they have Leach and a heavier reliance on the running game as a fallback plan.
“You have to prove out here in practice each and every day that you’re the guy, and you can get the job done,” Dickson said. “It was high expectations for the whole group, and that’s just the standard.”
But there’s no guarantee that individuals from a group of unproven candidates will ultimately emerge.
And that’s what makes Leach’s return just a bit more comforting this week.