AFC Championship Preview: The Tell

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 06: Fullback Vonta Leach #44 of the Baltimore Ravens during training camp at M&T Bank Stadium on August 6, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The fullback is a telling position. Seeing one in the backfield means power football is on its way. Old-timers like it when the fullback gets the ball—it's the way football used to be—like a Charlie Brown scene of dust and limbs. The fullback was once a premiere skill position in Paul Brown's offense. Marion Motley wrecked fools in leather helmets all day from the fullback spot, and carried the rock wearing number 76—it's hard to get more classic than that. Hallowed bruisers like Csonka, Riggins and our own Pete Johnson kept the position relevant by gaining yards over the decades, but the threat of the fullback trailed off in a slow and steady decline toward what it is today, a mini snowplow who is lucky to be activated.

Most NFL teams still employ a fullback; there was a brief scare recently, but the position was never actually tagged on the critically endangered list. A couple still occasionally get the ball—Kuhn comes to mind—but most of the guys that wear a fullback number and still catch the ball are that weird H-back hybrid breed of player. Marcel Reece, for instance, is the best offensive player for the Oakland Raiders when McFadden is hurt—he is wildly dynamic with such a diverse skill set—but he's not a true fullback.

There is one though who blasts out of his stance like an enraged hippopotamus. Eager to pulverize the wrong colored jersey,Vonta Leach is old-school indeed with his grime and his grit. He bounces tacklers out of running lanes like he's worked the door at rowdy punk-rock shows. He's Iron Mike tough, ready to slug on linebackers in an instant. Fortunately for him, not only is he allowed to do that, he gets paid for it.

The Ravens are looking for the home run every time they hand the ball off. With Leach escorting, Ray Rice charges through the hole, stumpy legs ablaze. Rice holds it with both hands until Leach leads him to daylight and then it's a contest to see if the defensive backfield is in good enough shape to even enter the television screen on long runs. While Baltimore insists on the deep-drop, vertical-passing game, I think they look to the run game to get them the explosive plays. Last week, the Texans used their speed and impressive intensity for four quarters to keep the Ravens offense reasonably in check.

This week, the Ravens have something far more lackluster in the Patriots defense, a group to which it has almost become obligatory to lambast while praising their offensive counterpart. Ranked second-to-last in overall defense this 2011 season, the Pats seemingly cannot stop much. Ray Rice and his brave blocking sidekick should have no problem racking up the big runs and getting some points up in the process.

Mr. Joe Flacco, however, must not only be sure to keep the ball away from a sneaky, ball-hawking secondary, he must make the good throws in the clutch. So far, he has always looked decent, never great. He seems easily rattled (as Ed Reed himself pointed out earlier this week), and I've never been sold on the guy's leadership skills or attitude. I feel many give him too hard a time and lack too much faith in him during the regular season, but when the stakes get as high as this, I don't think he's got the moxie.

Another telling sign of the fullback is its absence from a formation. As powerful as it is in the backfield, it is that much more open and free without one. That extra eligible receiver can stretch the field in so many ways based on where you line him up. Some of the more pass-happy teams have gone long stretches without activating a fullback, and other teams have trusted their tight-ends more than actual fullbacks to perform the task.

The Patriots are one of these teams. If they have a fullback, I can't name him. They instead spread out formations with their versatile tailbacks and tight-ends and throw short, quick passes. Baltimore wants to get-rich-quick on breakout runs, but New England wants to move slowly down the field through the air. If there is a short-yardage situation, the Pats expertly run the hurry-up quarterback sneak and get the first down seemingly 90 percent of the time. They set up their runs to Danny Woodhead and Benjarvus Green-Ellis by getting the defense to stretch out too far to the flats after a bevy of short accurate throws by Tom Brady.

The way New England achieves their big plays is either a missed tackle on a short throw—usually to Gronk—or a defensive breakdown. If Brady catches anyone sleeping at any point in the game, he will throw a touchdown over their head and scream about it intensely along the sidelines. The guy is not here to play; he's here to work.

If New England gets a good amount of YAC, the blowout will appear even more exaggerated. Otherwise, Brady will milk the clock, win the battle of field position, score at least a field goal on every drive and shove his way into another Super Bowl.

Sure the Ravens defense is good—we know the names—but it's going to take the collected effort of their lives to hold up in this one and I feel this group has run its course and met its match.


Patriots 31, Ravens 20

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