NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Vonta Leach's job is to get involved in a collision so Ray Rice won't.
The Baltimore Ravens are in the Super Bowl in part because of Leach's ability to pave a path for Rice to follow. If that involves sticking his helmet into the chest of a 300-pound defensive lineman, then so be it.
"It's just my job," said Leach, a three-time Pro Bowl fullback. "Everybody's got to do their part for us to be successful, and that's my role."
Leach serves as an escort for Rice and backup running back Bernard Pierce. In 2010, he opened up holes for Arian Foster in Houston. Not coincidentally, Rice and Foster both earned invitations to the Pro Bowl by following Leach's lead.
"Vonta is a fullback, the most under-recognized position in the game because of all the physical abuse he does to his body to see another man shine," said Rice, who ran for 1,143 yards during the regular season. "The fullback position is not a pretty job. One thing about it is, Vonta wants that responsibility, to go out there and just knock people out for me and Bernard to be successful. He's done it for many backs over the years. Look at what he's done for Arian Foster. They all can vouch for him. Linebackers around the league know he's coming for you."
Leach broke into the NFL in 2004 with Green Bay, but he didn't really make a name for himself until he played for Houston. In 2008 he cleared room for Steve Sloan, and two years later he helped make Foster the NFL's leading rusher.
His work often goes unnoticed, but is not unappreciated. Leach was an All-Pro in 2010 and 2011, and he's made the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons.
Leach didn't play in the NFL's all-star game this season because he was preparing for something more important: a Super Bowl matchup Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
"Vonta Leach is a good fullback. He is an All-Pro fullback, a Pro Bowl fullback, and really I almost feel like he is the last of the dying breed of what you can call a real fullback," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "He is a tough guy and a guy that every play you have to come with it."
Sometimes, Leach actually gets to run with the football. He carried nine times during the regular season, gaining 32 yards and scoring a touchdown. He has four rushes for 14 yards and a TD in the postseason. But most of the time, he's the one clearing room for someone else.
A year ago, the Ravens ran for 1,996 yards and 15 touchdowns. Rice gained 1,364 yards and scored 12 TDs. Those numbers were slightly lower this year — Baltimore had 1,901 yards rushing, and Rice score nine TDs on the ground — in part because Joe Flacco has been so effective passing the ball.
"I think last year we probably were a little bit better than this year, but we're a more balanced team," Leach said. "Teams don't know right now if we're going to run or pass the ball."
Leach was perfectly happy in Houston, but before the 2011 season the Texans decided he was too expensive to keep.
"My five years there was a great experience," Leach said. "I never had a run-in with the coaches or players. It's just that when the time came for me to get some money, for me to get my piece of the pie, they just didn't offer it to me."
He quickly signed with Baltimore as an unrestricted agent. It was a move that ultimately benefited both teams.
"I'm very happy with the success I've had with the Ravens," he said. "The reason I came is, the Ravens are one of those teams you're always talking about being in the running for the Super Bowl. Now here we are, and we have a chance to win it."
Only the 49ers stand in the way. Come Sunday, with Rice right behind him, Leach will be looking to knock down anyone wearing a red jersey.