Vonta Leach on Ravens-Steelers: 'These two teams really hate each other'
Fullback excited to join rivalry
OWINGS MILLS -- Vonta Leach approvingly watched the carnage from afar on his television, witnessing a violent series of blistering hits and intimidating words that define the Baltimore Ravens' grudge rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
One thought immediately came to mind for the bruising veteran fullback: "These two teams really hate each other."
Immediately capturing the essence of the annual series between these two AFC North powers, Leach is no longer a spectator.
The Ravens' newly-acquired All-Pro fullback was brought to town on a three-year, $11 million contract for a very specific reason: to bash helmets with the likes of James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior, beginning with this season-opener Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Yes, it's exciting," Leach said. "You've got a division rival coming in here. Both franchises go at each other. It's a tough, physical game. I remember watching it. It's exciting to be a part of it. They're physical, we want to be physical. It's going to be real exciting."
And brutally hard-hitting, to say the least.
The Ravens summoned Leach from the Houston Texans to knock people down.
The stocky 6-foot, 255-pounder is here to lead interference for former Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice.
A year ago, Foster paved a path for Houston Texans star running back Arian Foster to become the NFL rushing champion as he gained 1,610 rushing yards and scored 16 touchdowns.
"I watched what he did for Arian Foster, and he is an amazing fullback," Rice said when Leach was signed. "He lays the wood on people. Everyone knows his reputation, and I just can't wait to follow him. Look, I could probably trip and get 5 yards running behind him. I'm just excited to have a guy like that in front of me.
"He's all about business and all about hard work. When you've got a guy like that who brings that physical nature, your job as a running back is almost just run and catch the ball. He wants the dirty work. Here he goes, one of the best rocking fullbacks in the NFL."
Last season, Rice rushed for 1,220 yards.
However, his average per carry fell to four yards per carry after averaging 5.3 yards per rush two seasons when he was named to the Pro Bowl.
In order to keep the Ravens' defense off the field and prevent quarterback Joe Flacco from absorbing punishment, Baltimore may adopt a ball-control approach against the Steelers.
"Anytime you can run the football, that takes pressure off the quarterback," Leach said. "We want to protect Joe and we want to run the ball."
Last year, though, the Ravens fell to 14th in rushing offense as they averaged only 114.4 yards per contest on the ground. Meanwhile, the Steelers allowed just 62.8 rushing yards per game to rank first in the NFL in run defense.
"The mindset of the Ravens is you run the ball and everything else will take care of itself," guard Ben Grubbs said. "For years, we had been doing that and for whatever reason we kind of fell off last year. This year, we're going to get that mindset back and start pounding the ball a little bit more."
With Leach operating as a punishing lead blocker, the Ravens are determined to get back to that physical approach.
And the former undrafted free agent from East Carolina can't wait to officially become a part of the Ravens-Steelers lore, a story of cruel intentions.
"You always have these good games that come down to the fourth quarter, and I'm excited to be a part of it," Leach said. "I've been a part of Chicago-Green Bay and Texans-Cowboys, but never nothing like this."
Young receivers have opportunity to make their mark
OWINGS MILLS -- The suspension of wide receiver David Reed for the season opener for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy creates an instant opportunity for a trio of rookie wide receivers: Tandon Doss, Torrey Smith and LaQuan Williams.
"Absolutely," coach John Harbaugh said. "With David Reed gone, all those guys bump up a spot. So, the three young receivers are going to be big."
Not having Reed available for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers could also lead to tight end Dennis Pitta split out as a slot wide receiver because of his size, hands and route-running ability.
With Reed out for the first game, the Ravens are expected to utilize Smith on kickoff returns.
Williams is also going to return punts, and there's also a small package of offensive plays prepared for him.
Williams caught four passes for 84 yards during the preseason. He gained 71 yards on two punt returns with a long return of 38 yards and averaged 30.5 yards on two kickoff returns with a long return of 36 yards.
Of the three rookies, Doss runs the best routes and has the best hands and caught four passes for 72 yards during the preseason.
"You never know when your name is going to be called," Doss said. "You have to be willing to step up and play. You never know when they want you in, but you've got to be ready for it."
Williams is clearly the top special teams performer, but Reed led the NFL with a 29.3 kickoff return average last season and set a franchise record with a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Houston Texans.
"Whatever they want me to do, I'm ready to go," Williams said. "I'm excited that I made the team, but now it's time to make some plays in a game that counts."
And Smith, a second-round draft pick from the University of Maryland, struggled with his hands during the preseason and finished with only four receptions for 20 yards.
A fourth-round draft pick from Indiana, Doss had a 26-yard kickoff return during the preseason.
He plans on following the advice of starters Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans.
"I'm ready for the whole experience and to soak everything in and learn on the fly," Doss said. "I'm going to try to talk to 'Q' and Lee and look for advice. I'm looking forward to whatever I can do to help the team, though."
FOXWORTH GETTING READY: Following a preseason where he had to learn to be patient with his surgically-repaired knee one year after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, cornerback Domonique Foxworth said he feels ready for the regular season.
"Absolutely, I think you work to get to a point where you're comfortable," Foxworth said. "I think the preseason games really helped me feel more confident and the talent that we have here has really helped me build up."
Not having a normal offseason was an obstacle for Foxworth, who spent a lot of time during the NFL lockout in negotiations as a member of the NFL Players Association executive committee.
"I think this season presents a bunch of different challenges," Foxworth said. "I think it's hard to kind of compare to where I was before and things like that, but I'm definitely a much smarter player than I was. I think adding where my knee is, it comes with more work and more progress and more game time. So, we'll see how it goes."
HAMPTON SAYS RAVENS TALK A LOT: As far as Steelers nose guard Casey Hampton is concerned, the Ravens are more about noise than deeds.
Since 2001, the Steelers have won 14 of 23 games against the Ravens. That includes a 3-0 mark in the playoffs and six wins in the past eight meetings.
"They talk a whole lot," Hampton told Pittsburgh reporters. "They don't like us. I think they don't like us a lot more than we don't like them. I think they have to talk themselves into it, kind of, know what I mean? Since I've been here, we've beat them a lot more than they beat us. They have to talk about it a whole lot."
Regardless of outcome, the games are always hard-hitting and closely-played.
"It seems like they always have us beat and we always end up beating them, and they always feel like they should have won." Hampton said. "That's what makes it so sweeter. At the end of the day, if you win you win, no matter how you get it done. We have two physical teams that kind of play similar styles. We just seem to come out on the winning end more.
"I think our defenses are similar, but I think our offense can score a lot of points. I think that's kind of been the difference, our offense being able to score points at crunch time. They got a really good offense running the ball, but I think our passing game, being able to pass the ball, I think that's kind of [been the difference] the last few times we played them."
Hampton said the Steelers' edge is at wide receiver.
"They don't have the receivers we have as far as stretch-the-field kind of receivers, I should say," he said.
STRONG SAFETY UPDATE: Tom Zbikowski is still listed first on the depth chart at strong safety, but Bernard Pollard had an impressive preseason.
Both are expected to play extensively.
"I'm sure we'll both get time in packages," said Zbikowski, adding that he hasn't been told yet if he's going to start. "We'll probably get to that a little later this week."
ROSTER MOVE: The Ravens made it official, announcing the signing of offensive tackle Austin Howard to the practice squad.
They cut rookie safety Mana Silva from the practice squad. Silva had turned down other practice squad offers to remain in Baltimore.
Howard is a 6-foot-7, 330-pound former Philadelphia Eagles lineman who didn't make the final roster cut.
He played collegiately at Northern Iowa.
ALUMNI REPORT: Out of the NFL since being cut by the San Francisco 49ers, former Ravens quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith has signed with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League.
QUICK HIT: Starting tight end Ed Dickson caught 11 passes for 152 yards and one touchdown last season as a rookie working behind Todd Heap.
Now that Heap is gone, it's Dickson's job working in tandem with Pitta.
"He's grown," Harbaugh said of Dickson. "Would have loved to have him in the offseason to see if we could do even more with him, but I think he's made great first-year to second-year progress. Just understanding the game, speed of the game, he looks like he's very comfortable."
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