Are Bucs afraid of running Leonard Fournette into the ground?

The running back has 49 touches in two games, second only to the Bengals’ Joe Mixon. But the Bucs know it’s not sustainable.
Leonard Fournette carries the ball during the Bucs' victory over the Saints last weekend in New Orleans. Fournette picked up 65 yards on 24 carries in the 20-10 win.
Leonard Fournette carries the ball during the Bucs' victory over the Saints last weekend in New Orleans. Fournette picked up 65 yards on 24 carries in the 20-10 win. [ BUTCH DILL | AP ]
Published Sept. 24, 2022|Updated Sept. 24, 2022

TAMPA ― After the short but celebratory flight home following the Bucs’ 20-10 win at New Orleans last Sunday night, running back Leonard Fournette was tired and sore from carrying most of the offense on his shoulders.

It didn’t matter. He still had more lifting to do.

Fournette went into the weight room at AdventHealth Training Center and worked out for about 30 minutes.

“Just trying to get some of that soreness out of my body,” Fournette said. “It was a grinder game, so I definitely had to get my body back together.”

Did the weightlifting session work?

“I’m better than I was after the game,” Fournette said. “That’s all that matters.”

Fournette is shouldering the biggest workload in the Bucs’ offense this season. He already has 49 touches, trailing only the Bengals’ Joe Mixon for most in the NFL through two games. (The Browns’ Nick Chubb and Steelers’ Najee Harris, who also have more, have played three games.)

Against the Cowboys, Fournette played 47 of the Bucs’ 62 offensive snaps, or 76 percent. That’s a high snap count considering Tampa Bay had a comfortable 16-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Against the Saints, Fournette came off the field for only nine of the Bucs’ 67 snaps. New Orleans was stout against the run, limiting Tampa Bay to only 72 yards on the ground. Fournette accounted for 65 of them on 24 carries, a 2.71-yard average.

Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich knows the physical toll he’s extracting from Fournette, who has taken a pounding. But he’s also trying to protect 45-year-old quarterback Tom Brady while the rebuilt offensive line improves.

“It’s been a lot early, and two tough ballgames,” Leftwich admitted. “The thing with Lenny, you trust him so much in those ballgames, it’s tough to take him out. It’s tough to take him out of the ballgame, because he does so many things well. He does so many things well, and you can trust it in those environments.

“... We’re just happy to have someone so multiple that can do so many different things for us. It’s a blessing to have Lenny, but we do have to work more guys in to give more guys more opportunity, understanding it’s a long season.”

At the current rate, if he played all 17 regular-season games, Fournette would finish with nearly 400 rushing attempts, well beyond his career-high of 268 as a rookie with Jacksonville in 2017.

Fournette is getting hit four and five times on most rushing attempts, and the enormous size of the Saints’ defensive front was a problem.

A year ago, Fournette wore down. A hamstring strain forced him to miss the wild-card game against the Eagles.

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Things weren’t perfect against the Saints, but it helped Brady stay clean.

“Even though we didn’t have a great running game against them,” Fournette said, “we did enough to have a balanced passing game and running game.”

The Bucs don’t trust rookie Rachaad White enough to give him more work. He dropped a pass last week at New Orleans that drew Brady’s ire. With Giovani Bernard going on injured reserve, Ke’Shawn Vaughn will be active for the first time this season.

“I think Ke’Shawn had a great preseason,” Bowles said. " … He got better in every aspect of his ballgame, and it will be exciting when he gets his chance to play. Depending on the game plan and what we do depends on whether he plays more or less that week. But in the meantime he’ll work on special teams, and when he gets his shot to go in there I expect to see the same Ke’Shawn I saw in the preseason.”

Is Bowles worried about burning Fournette out?

“Not at this time,” he said. “We want to get the other running backs some more plays in there, but when ‘Lenny’ gets going you’ve got to feed him while he’s hot. That’s kind of how the first two games have been.”

In with the new

Akiem Hicks could miss a month after tearing the plantar fascia in his foot. The 32-year-old defensive lineman has missed 20 games since 2019.

That means more early opportunity in the rotation for rookie Logan Hall, the second-round pick from Houston. Hall has looked explosive in the few reps he’s had the first two games but needs to improve his technique.

“The thing with him is he just keeps growing,” Bucs co-defensive coordinator Kacy Rogers said. “The veterans keep commenting, and we think it’s really getting close to starting to click for him. We can see his rep count going up, and he’s really hungry. ... Especially now with Akiem down, his jump has got to come faster.”

Bucs D looks elite

It’s early, and it’s hard to get a fix on how good the Cowboys or the Saints really are. But two games into the regular season, the Bucs’ defense looks elite.

It has allowed one offensive touchdown and is the league’s top scoring defense, allowing an average of 6.5 points per game. It is first in sacks with 10 and in turnover differential at plus-4. It already has four interceptions, including two by cornerback Jamel Dean and one by safety Mike Edwards.

It ranks fifth in total defense, allowing 276 yards per game.

A more athletic defensive front, the otherworldly play of linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David and the continuity and communication in the secondary are primary reasons. The move to the nickel position by Antoine Winfield Jr. has been genius, with Logan Ryan playing the other safety spot.

“It gives you flexibility. You can do certain things on certain down-and-distances,” Bowles said. “All three (safeties) can play the nickel, as well as some of our corners. It’ll fluctuate throughout the season, but right now we feel best putting (Winfield) out there compared to some of the things that we see. He’s one of our best tacklers, he’s one of our most instinctive (players), he’s quick, he can read stuff and he’s explosive when he blitzes. Right now, he’s been filling in great right there.”

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