Bucs’ running game is finally clicking

by Gary Shelton on October 21, 2021

in general

Leonard Fournette has taken over./TIM WIRT

Thursday, 4 a.m.

Once, it was the league of the runaway running back. Football is a game built on legs, on the great runners who have stampeded across the field.

Once, there was Walter Payton and Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. There was Eric Dickerson and O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen. Larry Csonka and John Riggins and Franco Harris. Earl Campbell and Adrian Peterson and Gale Sayers. In the early days, there was Jim Brown, arguably the beat ever.

They were strong and fast, and they were the quickest way for a team to exert its muscle over an opponent. The way a team used to win a football game was to beat them into submission.

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Football isn't like that anymore. A lot of teams rely on plug-in backs who can take pressure off a game designed around today's quarterbacks. Running backs are an afterthought now, a side dish in a team's game plan.

Even now, however, running the ball can be an asset for an offense. It can be the cutaway punch. It can keep the chains moving. It can sap the desire of a worn-out defense.

And, overnight, it seems, the Bucs have found themselves one.

Oh, not much of one, if you're honest. There are still only six NFL teams that do not have more rushing yards than the Bucs.

But, for a fortnight, the Bucs have been a threat. Running back Leonard Fournette, over the last two weeks, has 34 carries for 148 yards on the ground (and 10 catches for 99 yards receiving). No, it won't make anyone forget about the great rushers of the NFL, but it's better than the first four weeks (when the Bucs averaged just over 70 yards a game rushing).

Much of that, of course, was the decision to rely heavily on Leonard Fournette instead of Ronald Jones II. With a fumble and a blown block earlier in the season, Jones played his way into the doghouse.

The playing time has gotten so lopsided that the internet is abuzz with rumors than Jones might be traded before the deadline. Bucs' coach Bruce Arians seemed to quash those on Wednesday.

"Not at all," Arians said. "It's a long season, and just that scenario that happened last year, and still with COVID – you can't have enough good players."

Arians has a point. Last year, Jones had 978 yards in 14 games, but was dinged coming down the stretch. Fournette emerged in the playoffs after a heart-to-heart talk with Arians. It often takes two backs in these days.

For now, however, Fournette seems have a grip on the job.

"He's fit in, he's found his niche," Arians said. "When ‘RoJo’ (Ronald Jones II) got hurt he took over and he's not looking back. It's hard for ‘RoJo’ to get back out there unless he gets hurt. It's nice to have both of them, that's for sure, but he's playing really, really well."

Fournette said his performance is a reflection of the coaching staff's trust in him.

“My coaches trust in me and in the game plan, and the players too," Fournette said. "So just taking on that role – I’ve been doing it my whole life too. Last year kind of helped me too. I still feel fresh, not getting the ball a lot of times [led to] not too many bruises on my body, so I feel good. I’m in good shape right now.” 

No one has ever doubted Fournette had the ability. But his tenure with the Jags had a tough ending. Now, he seems to be back on course.

"I’m happy here," Fournette said. "I’m very happy. I was probably my first year in Jacksonville, but it’s like it’s back to that. I’ve got the one year under my belt with a great group of guys and people, and I love it here. And they love me, so same.”

And that's the thing. Even when the run is working, the Bucs are in no danger of abandoning the pass. But if a back can get 75 yards a game, if he can catche passes for another 40, if they can pick up a third down or two, it's going to be hard to stop this offense.

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