Bucs backfield has caught lightning (and thunder) in a bottle

Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette finally are flourishing in tandem, and not a Sunday too soon.
Bucs running back Ronald Jones (27) passes a ball to teammate Leonard Fournette (28) during a practice last week at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa.
Bucs running back Ronald Jones (27) passes a ball to teammate Leonard Fournette (28) during a practice last week at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 20, 2021

TAMPA — His pregame incitement to fellow Bucs tailback Ronald Jones was equal parts pep and profanity. Chris Rockne, if you will.

By now, Leonard Fournette’s words — at least the printable ones — prior to last Sunday’s playoff game against the Saints have been well chronicled.

“I’m telling Ro, excuse my language, but ‘(Forget) the injury. We need you, I’m not going to lie to you – we need you.’ ... I said, ‘Man, understand this – you don’t get many chances to make it to the playoffs (and) to have the run that we’re on right now.’”

“Oh, yeah, I definitely was going to play,” said Jones, who had missed the playoff opener against Washington with a sore quad. “He was just more motivating me to get out there. I was going to be out there regardless.”

At any rate, Fournette’s expletive was followed by an obscene 1-2 punch to the solar plexus of the Saints defense. In the tandem’s most balanced effort — by far — of the 2020 season, Jones and Fournette teamed for 125 yards on 30 carries in the Bucs’ 30-20 triumph.

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Jones, the 208-pound speed merchant, ran 13 times for 62 yards. Fournette, the 228-pound shock absorber, ran 17 times for 63. It marked only the second time all season both had taken at least 10 handoffs in the same game.

Which is to say, long after Florida’s storm season waned, the Bucs finally unveiled their version of Thunder and Lightning.

“They’re two dynamic backs that kind of bring a little something different to the table,” said Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who must account for both in Sunday’s NFC title game at Lambeau Field. “Got a lot of respect for both of those guys. They’re dangerous. You’d better have an understanding of where they are at all times.”

This was the two-dimensional wallop that coach Bruce Arians says he intended to pack at the outset. The problem was keeping both healthy at the same time.

They brandished their dual potential — sort of — in the home opener against the Panthers. Jones (seven carries, 23 yards) had an early 7-yard scoring run but fumbled in the second quarter. Arians then leaned late on Fournette, who ran for most of his 103 yards in the fourth quarter of a 31-17 triumph.

Fast forward to October, and Jones recorded three consecutive 100-yard games while Fournette was sidelined with an ankle injury. Late in the season, when Fournette was a healthy scratch against the Vikings, Jones totaled 80 yards on 18 carries.

When his quad flared just before the Washington game, Fournette came through with his best game as a Buccaneer (132 totals yards, one rushing touchdown).

The triumph in New Orleans marked the first time both had run for at least 30 yards in the same game since a 45-20 rout of the Raiders in Las Vegas on Oct. 25.

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“Both those guys I consider starters, so it’s a matter of just getting guys in there, keeping them fresh, who’s got the hot hand, that whole thing,” Arians said.

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“I really liked the way Ro (ran in New Orleans). I thought Ro had his confidence back and really, really hit the holes hard. I thought Leonard played outstanding. So yeah, it’s a heck of a 1-2 punch and just having fresh legs out there all the time.”

Conventional logic suggests the pair will be pivotal Sunday at Lambeau, where projected conditions (temperatures in the high 20s and a 50 percent chance of snow) seem conducive to a succession of handoffs.

In games where Jones and Fournette each have carried the ball at least seven times, the Bucs are 6-1.

“When they’re just running like that, they’re two phenomenal backs,” receiver Mike Evans said. “They’re both really explosive power runners. When they’re going, we’re tough to beat, and that’s been shown all year.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.