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With two peers sidelined, Leonard Fournette flourishes in Bucs backfield

The Jaguars castoff enjoys arguably his best game in a Tampa Bay uniform in Saturday’s triumph.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette celebrates his fourth-quarter touchdown vs. Washington at FedEx Field on Saturday.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette celebrates his fourth-quarter touchdown vs. Washington at FedEx Field on Saturday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 10
Updated Jan. 10

LANDOVER, Md. — Their red-zone efficiency diminished with the temperatures. Rhythm appeared in spurts. The max protections, while mostly keeping Tom Brady upright, left the passing game out of sorts at times.

“We moved the ball okay, I think we had decent yardage, but at the end of the day it comes down to points,” Brady said.

Smack in the middle of this discombobulation was Leonard Fournette. Today, he’s a big reason the Bucs are still breathing.

“Leonard played great,” coach Bruce Arians said following Tampa Bay’s 31-23 playoff triumph against Washington. “Probably the best he’s played all year.”

On an evening devoid of consistency, the Jaguars castoff seemed one of the lone constants. With backfield peers Ronald Jones (quad) and LeSean McCoy (illness) sidelined, Fournette had arguably his best day as a Buccaneer.

His final totals: 19 carries for a game-high 93 yards and a touchdown, and four receptions (on as many targets) for 39 yards.

“I can’t say enough about Leonard, just how hard he ran the ball today,” tight end Cameron Brate said.

When not setting an early tone, Fournette was providing late punctuation. He had 23 yards on three carries on Tampa Bay’s first possession (ending in a field goal). His 5-yard catch on third and 3 set up Brady’s 27-yard scoring pass to Chris Godwin the following play, pushing the Bucs lead to 15-7.

When officials ruled Brate dropped what had initially been ruled a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Fournette followed with a 3-yard scoring churn, giving his team a 28-16 lead.

And it was Fournette scampering for 13 yards on Tampa Bay’s final field-goal drive that helped seal things.

“Oh man, playoff Lennie, that man’s crazy, boy,” left tackle Donovan Smith said. “He’s doing what he’s always done.”

He just didn’t expect to be doing it so extensively Saturday night. Fournette said he was as surprised as anyone when Jones — whom he said practiced all week — was downgraded to questionable Saturday night.

So he huddled with rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn (the only other healthy tailback), ran through the tips offered by position coach Todd McNair and told him to “fight through.”

Vaughn finished with 21 yards on five carries, but didn’t reappear following a third-quarter fumble.

“(The workload) was cool, but that’s my job, just filling in for (Jones),” Fournette said.

“It’s been an up-and-down season for me. I think this year, it tested my humbleness. Coming from being the whole offense to just a minor piece. ... I just kept faith. They believed in me and I’m happy. I’m happy where I’m at and where I stand.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.