TAMPA — Ronald Jones is running a reverse. He’s switched roles with Leonard Fournette and could become the tailback who not only carries the football but also the Bucs deep into the playoffs.
A year ago, Jones was the Bucs’ No. 1 running back and on his way to a 1,000-yard season when he missed two games at the end of the regular season with COVID-19 and then suffered a quad strain in warmups before the wild-card game at Washington.
That gave Fournette an opening he could burst through. He averaged 100 combined yards rushing and receiving in four postseason games.
“I mean, it’s kind of reminiscent of last year,” running backs coach Todd McNair said. “Ro had a nice little stretch run (last season), some good games, and he goes down and Lenny steps in. We’re Playoff Lenny from then on out. They’re both capable. They have different abilities, different skillsets. But I think we’re blessed to have both of them in this type of situation.”
Can RoJo be this year’s Playoff Lenny?
“It’s tough being right there on the tip of it, but I guess everything happens for a reason,” said Jones, who had as many as 10 rushing attempts in only one game this season. “We ended up winning the big one, so trying to repeat that success again, because with team success comes individual success. I’ll be trying to chase it again soon.”
The Bucs have never needed Jones more than they do now, as Fournette had become the do-it-all back this season.
Both players committed turnovers and mistakes in the season-opening win over the Cowboys. At that point, coach Bruce Arians appeared willing to let them fight for the starting job and split loyalties.
But Jones had one obvious flaw. He consistently struggled in pass protection and didn’t catch the ball as well as Fournette, the team’s second-leading pass-catcher with 69 (for 454 yards and 2 touchdowns).
Unfortunately, Fournette was among the slew of starters who were injured in last week’s loss to the Saints, suffering a hamstring strain. His regular season is done, as he was placed on injured reserve along with receiver Chris Godwin (torn ACL) and linebacker Lavonte David (foot).
Jones was a bright spot for the Bucs Sunday, rushing for a season-high 63 yards on eight carries (7.9 yard average), including a season-long 30-yard run.
“Ro was running really well,” Arians said. “And he caught the ball really well. With Lenny getting hurt, it’s all on (Jones’) shoulders again. I look forward to that one.”
Credit Jones for continuing to work and not become a malcontent. That would have been easy for a former second-round pick in his final season before free agency to do. Despite being used sparingly and almost never on passing downs, Jones rushed for 337 yards and three touchdowns on only 71 attempts (4.8 average).
With receiver Mike Evans expected to miss Sunday’s game and Godwin done until maybe October, the Bucs will have to find another way to solve the puzzle. A likely solution would be to put more onus on their offensive line, which boasts three Pro Bowlers in center Ryan Jensen, guard Ali Marpet and tackle Tristan Wirfs.
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Other young players, such as receivers Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller, and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard will have more opportunities to contribute. But Jones, running behind arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, could be the way to go.
Carolina, where the Bucs play Sunday, is the site of Jones’ best game. A year ago, he rushed for a career-high 192 yards — including a 98-yard TD run — against the Panthers in Charlotte.
Quarterback Tom Brady, whose career was launched following an injury to Drew Bledsoe in 2001, knows something about being prepared when your turn comes.
“I think I was really ready to take advantage of that opportunity, and I think any older player would want the younger guys to prove to their teammates that they’re ready to take advantage of the opportunity,” Brady said. “That’s what you’ve got to do as a younger player, you’ve got to earn it. It’s just not like some older player gets hurt and the next guy is going to go in and be great. You can’t decide to be great the week you’re called up. You’d better put the time in.”
The Bucs hope to get Fournette back for the postseason, but they signed journeyman running back Le’Veon Bell to provide Brady with another sure-handed target out of the backfield.
Maybe it was just good mojo for RoJo, but he’s got his old job back and a new lease on his career.
“It’s his time now to do what happened for Leonard last year when (Jones) got hurt,” Arians said. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world. ... I think going forward, it’s his job right now.
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