How Patrick Willis showed he was a leader early
Patrick Willis has been 1st-Team All-Pro each of the last four seasons. Vonta Leach has been 1st-Team All-Pro each of the last three seasons. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
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Editor's note: This is the third part in a series by CSNBayArea.com 49ers Insider Matt Maiocco and CSNBaltimore.com Ravens Insider J. Michael that spotlights seven 49ers-Ravens matchups to watch in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday in New Orleans.
49ers LB Patrick Willis vs. Ravens FB Vonta Leach
Tale of the tape
Willis (52): 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, sixth season, Mississippi
Leach (44): 6-foot, 260 pounds, ninth season, East Carolina
Linebacker Patrick Willis, a six-time Pro Bowl selection in six NFL seasons, will have his hands full trying to wrap up one of the top running backs in the league.
But before Willis can deal with Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice in Super Bowl XLVII, he must first contend with the best lead-blocker in the league.
Three-time Pro Bowler Vonta Leach, who holds a 20-pound advantage on Willis is cut from the mold of a traditional fullback. Leach carried the ball just nine times and caught 21 passes during the regular season. But he is a huge factor in the Ravens' offense nonetheless.
"I almost feel like he is the last of the dying breed of what you can call a real fullback," Willis said. "He is a tough guy and a guy that every play you have to come with it."
A lot of the responsibility will fall on the 49ers' defensive line to clog the run lanes and prevent Leach from reaching the second level to block Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Willis said the 49ers have be assignment-sound.
"Really, it's just recognizing what's going on and recognizing the play and just going after it," Willis said. "You have to understand that you have 10 other guys on the defense and if you do the job that you are supposed to do and let the guys help you with the rest."
[FEATURES: 49ers-Ravens seven key matchups]
When the running game is working for the Ravens, Leach is leading the way up front to clear room for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. The duo combined for 1,675 yards rushing. Leach was chosen for this third Pro Bowl.
The Ravens struggled to run the ball early in the season as Rice's touches went south and Pierce, a rookie, was largely ignored. Leach's role diminished, too, as then-offensive coordinator Cam Cameron cut back the snaps he played because of the no-huddle. Things began to change after the bye week, and they turned around completely after Week 14, when Cameron was fired and Jim Caldwell was installed to call plays. The Ravens run the ball about 10 times more per game under Caldwell, which means more Leach.
"I don't necessarily see it as me vs. him, but he's the leader on their defense. He makes a lot of plays for them," Leach said of Willis. "We're going to see each other throughout the day."
The Ravens are no longer predictable when running the ball. In a double-overtime win at the Broncos in a divisional playoff, a delayed handoff was given to Rice on 2nd-and-10. He gained 11 yards to set up the winning FG. Such a play call was unheard of with Cameron this season. On almost every significant gain for yardage on the ground, Leach is there leading the way.
"Teams that want to be physical and want to run the ball they have a fullback." Leach said. " People try to get away from it but over time, I think we will get back to it.”