If the cheers of "KUUUHHHNNN" resonating throughout Lambeau Field (and often in away stadiums) when Green Bay Packers fullback John Kuhn gets a carry seem fewer and farther between this year, that's because they are.
In the six games he's played in 2013, Kuhn has just three carries for nine yards and four receptions for 24 yards, putting him well under pace for his rushing and receiving totals through the same number of games in 2012.
|Kuhn's Production Through 6 Games in 2012 vs. 2013|
|Carries||Rushing Yards||Receptions||Receiving Yards|
Breaking down Kuhn's playing time in those six games in 2012, versus the six games he's played in 2013, paints a clearer picture as to why his numbers have dropped.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Kuhn played 157 snaps in his first six games last season. This year, he's been on the field on just 103 snaps.
Many argue that the fullback is a dying breed in the NFL. For some teams moving to a spread offense and substituting in a slot receiver instead of the fullback as one of those 11 eligible men on the field, it is.
Only 19 teams have used a fullback on more than 100 snaps in 2013. Of those players, only six have gained 20-plus all-purpose yards. Of course, after Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin joined James Starks in the backfield this offseason, the Packers' need for Kuhn to be available as a checkdown option decreased, and with it, his production.
However, Green Bay's all-in commitment to the run game this season increases Kuhn's role as a run-blocker.
Kuhn's stock has remained high in the organization, and that's because even if his ability to catch passes out of the backfield is de-emphasized, he brings his veteran experience and his value as a run-blocker and a pass-blocker to the table.
And now, with Seneca Wallace replacing Aaron Rodgers for four to six weeks and go-to Y receivers Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley on injured reserve (Cobb with designation to return late this season), Kuhn's role may increase.
The Packers have played a total of 562 offensive snaps this year, meaning with his 103, Kuhn has played on 18 percent of all offensive snaps.
However, on Monday night against the Bears, Rodgers' injury was correlated with two important deviations: The Packers ran a season-low 55 offensive snaps, and Kuhn was in for 45 percent of them—far and away the most playing time he's seen all year.
And given that he's rated as the No. 4 overall blocker among all fullbacks by Pro Football Focus (both overall and among fullbacks who have played 100-plus snaps), he'll be called upon to give Wallace reassurance in the pocket while keeping the run game on its feet by breaking open lanes for Lacy and Starks.
Running backs coach Alex Van Pelt is adamant that though the fullback may be going the way of the dodo on other teams, that's not the case for the Packers.
"You never go in without a fullback," Van Pelt told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this year. "We're more of a three-wide team right now, a two-tight end team.
"But there is always a place for the fullback in this offense."
With Rodgers, Cobb and Jermichael Finely out and the passing game looking less-than-deadly for the first time in years, however, it's not so much a given that the Packers will run their go-to Posse formation (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) a majority of the time.
Tossing out Monday night's game for lack of statistical significance, the Packers were averaging 36 passing attempts per game under Rodgers. Under Wallace on Monday, they only had 19, and that's not likely to increase dramatically even after Wallace has had time to take first-team reps in practice.
The game plan in Rodgers' absence will still largely depend on Lacy and Starks, and Kuhn's lead blocking skills, which are especially sharp this year, will be utilized on many plays in place of having an inexperienced tight end in to block.
Moreover, the Packers have traditionally elected to use a fullback in the backfield in place of a tight end, even when Finley was healthy.
Kuhn has earned an above-average grade from Pro Football Focus in run-blocking in four of his six games this year, including Monday night.
Those skills may be especially useful if the Packers try to get the 5'11 Wallace moving around outside the pocket with bootleg fakes or designed runs.
To see how the Packers will increase Kuhn's role for the remainder of the season, look no further than Monday night's game. On their first drive of the night with Rodgers, the Packers ran eight plays. Five were in the no-huddle; none utilized Kuhn.
On their second drive, with Wallace, Green Bay ran seven plays. None were in the no-huddle; every single one included Kuhn.
And he was noticeably effective. Take the play below, for example. Lacy is going to run the ball around the right end, and the Bears knows this; they've brought eight men into the box.
Safety Major Wright goes into motion to make the tackle, but Kuhn makes a diving block that pins him to the ground, leaving Lacy free to gain eight yards on the play.
Expect to see Kuhn in the backfield with Lacy and Starks often over the next four to six weeks. And as long as Franklin continues to mature throughout the season and the Packers try to limit Lacy's carries, don't be surprised to see Kuhn catch passes out of the backfield as a third-down back or on a goal-line stand on some plays.
Ultimately, much of why Kuhn is valued in the organization, such as for his veteran leadership and knowledge of the offense, isn't quantifiable.
Kuhn is the second-longest tenured player on the team after Rodgers, meaning he now knows the offense better than any other active player—including Wallace.
He'll be an essential resource for both Wallace and the offense as a whole, which includes rookies in both the receiving corps (wide receiver Myles White) and on the line (left tackle David Bakhtiari), in addition to Lacy and Franklin in the backfield.
However, even though Van Pelt is enthusiastic about Kuhn's role on the team now, things may change next year. Kuhn will become an unrestricted free agent after this season, earning a base salary of $1.3 million in 2013, making him the second-highest paid fullback after Baltimore's Vonta Leach.
Kuhn is one year older than his jersey number, joining only nine other running backs in the NFL over the age of 30.
He has an opportunity this season to continue to prove how valuable an NFL fullback can be in run-blocking, pass-blocking and on third downs.
It may be the last opportunity he gets as a Packer.
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