Whether the Ravens win or lose, fullback Vonta Leach is almost always an amiable, stand-up interview subject, so it was surprising to see him hurriedly exiting the locker room shortly after the Ravens' loss in Houston two weeks ago.
With his bag over his shoulder as he strode purposefully for the bus, he gave quick replies to a couple of questions, put his head down and disappeared.
His sour mood was easily explained. Not only had Leach, formerly of the Texans, lost badly in his return to Houston, but according to the participation statistics, he was on the field for just 14 of the Ravens' 61 offensive snaps. He had barely played.
Ray Rice's too-low count of 14 touches that day was the number that has ignited a heated debate about what the Ravens should do to fix their up-and-down offense, but Leach's 14 snaps was even more startling. He is the NFL's top blocking back, a first-team All-Pro in 2011, seemingly still at his peak, and he can't get on the field?
The unfolding philosophical debate has centered on how much the Ravens should hand the ball to Rice in an increasingly pass-happy league, with most opinions falling into a rather obvious category: Yes, he needs more than the nine carries he totaled in Houston. No secret there. Even Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron said as much Thursday in his weekly session with reporters, while adding he believes the offense fares best when multiple go-to guys are functioning, not just Rice.
Fans will be closely monitoring Rice's carries, touches and the overall run-pass balance when the Ravens play the Browns Sunday, and that's understandable, especially given Rice's impressive track record against the Browns. But keep an eye on Leach. In many respects, he is the pivotal figure in this conversation.
A fierce blocker who sets a rugged tone, he was signed last year to a reported three-year, $11 million contract for a reason ... and not his pass-catching ability. He loves contact, levels defenders, opens holes. It's a physical game and few play it more physically.
Problems can arise in an organization when the front office and the coaches aren't on the same page, an issue the Ravens seemingly have avoided. But here is a case where the front office has brought in an elite player who fits the organization's hardnosed philosophy, yet he isn't getting his usual playing time, making it onto the field for just 37.6 percent of the offensive snaps this season as the coaches seek a faster tempo.
Cameron's true challenge is to keep Leach more in the loop while also keeping the passing game charged -- not a simple task. Leach's presence naturally leads to a greater emphasis on the running game. And more snaps for him means fewer for the tight ends and receivers who rotate in and out, potentially leading to more predictability and a bottled-up passing game. The Ravens do need to run more, but without forsaking the pass and its explosive potential – a must-have for any contender these days.
They struggled with this issue a year ago, experiencing some rough games until they found the right balance down the stretch, the right blend of Flacco and Rice. The offense was consistent, productive and almost made it to the Super Bowl, with Leach a key contributor.
This year has been different for him, but Leach is a team guy who doesn't complain about how he is used, so there have been no headlines, not that he needs to say a word when his teammates continually sing the chorus of what he brings to the unit as "the best fullback in the league" according to Rice.
While Cameron pointed out Thursday that the play-calling load is more shared this season because Flacco has more authority to audible – an important point – it is Cameron who generally picks the personnel packages. A heavier diet of Leach sounds less palatable than a heavier diet of Rice, but it could make all the difference, providing grounding and ballast for an offense trying to find a rhythm.
My hunch is the more he is out here, the better the Ravens are.