TAMPA ― Now it’s Playoff Lenny or nothing for the Bucs.
Leonard Fournette, who sustained a hamstring injury that put him on crutches during Sunday’s 9-0 loss to the Saints, appears to be headed to injured reserve and done for the final three games of the regular season.
Linebacker Lavonte David, who sustained a foot injury, also won’t play again until at least the start of the postseason.
The Bucs are hopeful to get both players back for the playoffs. But to add depth at running back, they signed 29-year-old Le’Veon Bell on Tuesday.
They’re crushing blows for the Bucs, who watched their leading receiver, Chris Godwin, suffer a torn right ACL after being hit on the knee by Saints cornerback P.J. Williams in the second quarter Sunday.
Receiver Mike Evans also left the game with a hamstring injury, although it’s possible he could return before the postseason.
David was playing his best football of the season, recording 11 tackles against the Saints with a sack and forced fumble. The Bucs defense did not allow a touchdown, limiting the Saints to only 212 total yards and holding them to 3 of 16 on third down.
Bell, a three-time Pro Bowl player who is joining his fourth team since the start of the 2020 season, rushed for 83 yards and two touchdowns in five games with the Ravens this season. He averaged just 2.7 yards per attempt and seemed to lack the burst that allowed him to rush for at least 1,200 yards in three different seasons with the Steelers earlier in his career.
Tampa Bay still needs another win to clinch the NFC South for the first time in 14 seasons. They play Sunday at Carolina and Jan. 2 at the New York Jets before finishing the regular season at home against the Panthers on Jan. 9. Currently, the Bucs own the No. 3 seed in the NFC but could improve to No. 2 if they win out and the Cowboys and Cardinals lose at least one game.
The Bucs will receive some reinforcements. Receiver Antonio Brown and safety Mike Edwards have returned from their three-game suspension for using fake COVID-19 cards.
Bell was a teammate of Brown’s during his best years in Pittsburgh. But his best game this season was Week 9 against the Vikings, when he rushed for 48 yards. He didn’t total more than 18 in any of his other four appearances.
The bulk of the rushing load will now fall on Ronald Jones, who was the Bucs’ starting running back and headed toward a 1,000-yard season in 2020 until COVID-19 forced him to miss two of the final three regular season games. He suffered a quad injury in warmups before the wild-card game at Washington and Fournette took over, averaging more than 100 total yards per game in the postseason.
Jones will get the same opportunity to replicate Fournette’s late-season effort. He rushed eight times for 63 yards Sunday, including a 30-yard run. He’s also relatively rested. He’s had 10 carries in a game only once this season.
“It’s his time now to do what happened for Leonard last year when (Jones) got hurt,” coach Bruce Arians said. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world. He ran great. Caught the ball good. I think going forward, it’s his job right now.”
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Bell will provide quarterback Tom Brady with another reliable target out of the backfield. Fournette was the Bucs’ second-leading pass-catcher with 69 receptions for 454 yards and two touchdowns. Bell has 395 career receptions.
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