Fullback is a New Orleans Saints necessity for success
As we begin this Saints season there is one position group that isn’t a group. It’s just a guy. He’s the only one on the roster and he only got picked up during training camp. But his importance to this team and to a Sean Payton offense is likely to be tremendous if history tells us anything.
The changing face of the NFL has made the role of the fullback somewhat obsolete. So much so that in 2015, 10 teams didn’t even have a fullback on their roster. The game has gone to the pass over the run, so the 2 tight end set has replaced the fullback; or a tight end lines up off tackle and then comes in motion to become a blocker for the running back. The fullback basically gives you up as running the ball, as you have so few plays designed for pass with today’s defenses with a fullback on the field – it depletes your receiving arsenal by one person usually. Normally when a fullback is in, the defense stays in its base formation and the linebacker is the responsible for the fullback. What offensive coordinators often do today, is take the fullback out of the equation to force the defense to play more nickel packages, so now you have an extra cornerback trying to tackle a running back. It’s a tradeoff – do you trust your fullback to win that block on the linebacker often enough to make it worthwhile to have him around? Or do you prefer a matchup of your 6’ 220 lb. running back against a 5’9” 175 lb. nickel corner, who likely wasn’t good enough to be a starter…
The Saints have gone that route too, but have a preference of having a real fullback on the roster. This year, it’s John Kuhn, 10-year veteran out of Shippensburg State, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers. Kuhn is the latest in a long line of solid fullback performers the Saints have employed. Mike Karney was a wrecking ball for Deuce McAllister. Then Heath Evans came along and helped win us a Super Bowl. Jed Collins was a solid performer for 3 years before giving way to Austin Johnson and Erik Lorig. The Saints have also used tight ends as blockers to some effect, but nothing seems to do the job of a fullback like a bona fide fullback.
And the Saints have done a pretty decent job of using them. Although we haven’t had a 1000-yard rusher since Deuce, fullbacks have done fair to good work for us. Forget the yards: our fullbacks have combined for 21 touchdowns in the Payton offense. A fullback has scored at least one TD every year since 2006. That’s a fair number of scores.
Considering the offensive line woes, having a fullback of Kuhn’s Pro Bowl pedigree around is nice. We aren’t likely to blow teams off the ball or create big holes, or get second level blocks. We need the services of a fullback to get those second level blocks creating additional space for our backs to pick up an extra yard or two. As well, the Saints use their fullbacks to great success in the passing game, as many of the 21 TD’s picked up by fullbacks have come on flats passes out of the backfield. Whether it’s a clear out and underneath route or a pylon toss for a TD, the fullbacks have been a great advantage for us.
The advantage of having the TE play that spot is height. While normally a less explosive blocker with less than great pad level, they tend to be more effective in the passing game from out of the backfield since they are naturally receiver/blockers. And normally they are taller than fullbacks, most of whom tend to be short squatty guys with a very low center of gravity. TE’s aren’t always the best at interior blocking but can do a decent job on edge blocks which is where they make most of their money anyway.
The Saints use both types of blockers: the TE as an H-back, and the fullback. However, it seems their greatest running success comes when they run old school style plays with a fullback and a tailback and allow that tailback to follow his fullback through a hole.
Kuhn’s role with Green Bay was multiple over the years. In a few seasons where injuries depleted their running back stock, he ended up playing more of a bruiser back role, where he was playing as though he were a tailback, but hitting holes as if he were a fullback. Of course this created headaches for a defense – a guy who normally blocks carrying the ball isn’t such a big deal in a short yardage situation. Fullbacks normally line up only a couple of yards behind the QB as opposed to the tailback who may be 7-8 yards from the line of scrimmage. But put a 250 lb. man back there 7 yards from the line and give him a chance to get up a head of steam – even the linebackers don’t want to take that head on. So Kuhn is a capable runner, with 18 rushing TD’s to his resume’. He’s also a solid receiver out of the backfield, amassing 8 TD’s there.
As long as injures aren’t an issue, Kuhn should be a solid asset to a team that historically has used the fullback to great advantage. It’s a role, while maybe going the way of the dodo in the NFL, still has a solid place on this team and is a necessity unless this line gets better quick.