TAMPA — Coming into the biggest game of his career, Leonard Fournette kept hearing Tom Brady’s voice in his head.
Ahead of Super Bowl 55, Brady told him that the Chiefs were sub-par against the run, and not a very good tackling team, either. He remembered Brady telling him that if Fournette continued to do what he’s done this postseason, run the ball with authority and catch the ball out of the backfield, he could be a difference-maker on the world’s biggest stage.
When the game was all said and done, one of the Bucs’ biggest redemption players stood on his home field with fireworks exploding and confetti falling above him.
“Playoff Lenny” was the Bucs’ premier all-purpose offensive weapon throughout the postseason, and he ended the playoffs with 135 total yards and a touchdown in the Bucs’ 31-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl.
“Tom preached all week that they were 31st in the league in yards after carry and yards after the catch, too,” Fournette said. “Their run defense wasn’t that good. I take pride in that, knowing those guys don’t want to tackle. Sometimes you make a guy miss and at the same time you punch him in the mouth. And then at the end of the game, they’re not going to want to tackle you and that’s exactly what happened.”
This was the way Fournette’s season ended, a campaign that began with him being cut by the lowly Jaguars, signing with the Bucs to join their crowded running back room, and a through a season when he learned a lot about himself.
Labeled a malcontent in Jacksonville and evenly openly frustrated this season as his playing time wavered, Fournette had the most uneven year of his career. Bucs coach Bruce Arians initially wanted him to be the closer, a back who could wear down defenses in the second half, but as Ronald Jones emerged, the snaps went away.
But in the postseason, an injury to Jones opened the door for Fournette and he came barreling through.
In four playoff games, Fournette had four touchdowns — three rushing and one receiving — and now has eight touchdowns in seven career playoff games.
“He’s been fantastic, running and catching and pass-blocking,” Arians said. “He’s done a great job for us.”
He ran for 300 yards this postseason, averaging 4.6 yards a carry and 112 all-purpose yards a game.
“He’s done a phenomenal job getting hot at the right time,” Bucs left guard Ali Marpet said. “I think it’s very fortunate. I feel like he’s capable of doing that all the time. He’s a great player, but sometimes just takes a little while to understand the offense, the feel of everything. He’s just done a nice job of getting hot at the right time.”
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Fournette ran for a game-high 89 yards on 16 carries, including a 27-yard touchdown on the Bucs’ first drive of the second half that gave Tampa Bay a 28-9 lead.
On Fournette’s touchdown run, he ran behind Marpet, who was pulling to the right side, opening a hole for Fournette that paved his path to the end zone. Fournette then hit another gear, splitting three Chiefs defenders while going untouched for the score.
On that drive, the Bucs leaned on Fournette to pad their lead, and he accounted for 46 of the drive’s 74 yards.
“We got him pretty late and he just showed up big,” Brady said. “It was amazing how he performed in the biggest moments. Just so proud of him.”
Five of Fournette’s 16 carries led to first downs.
“They used him in the run game and he ran hard and they used them in the play-pass game as a check down,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “So he did a nice job of that. We needed to do a better job of making sure we’re in position to cover. Give the kid credit, he did a nice job.”
He was the workhorse back in Jacksonville and struggled to accept a smaller role in the Bucs’ backfield rotation, but essentially he was primed for the playoffs because he was fresh.
“I’m 200-less carries than what I had (in Jacksonville),” Fournette said. “I can tell my kids you know about keeping faith, staying focused, a whole bunch of things. It was a tough year for me. As a competitor you want to be out there, you want to compete. You want to play as hard as you can to help the team. ...
“In some games, I didn’t get a chance to help anyone. But in the long run, ‘Playoff Lenny’ came alive. I thank God every day that the Bucs gave me a second opportunity to play football, the game that I love.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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