The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have looked like a completely different team over the past couple months, with the Tom Brady-led squad finally hitting its stride at just the right time. And though there's been a lot of chatter about the passing attack's improved chemistry down the stretch, it's the ground game that has been the underlying key to their postseason success.
After averaging just 94.9 rush yards a game in the regular season (T-28th in the NFL), the Bucs are putting up 115 per contest in the playoffs. For that, they can thank Leonard Fournette, who came up big in Sunday's NFC title game with a 20-yard, tackle-breaking, defender-eluding touchdown run to help the Bucs earn a spot in Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7 in their home stadium. He's been the X-factor in the postseason and will be the biggest key to Tampa's success against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs.
In three playoff games, the fourth-year running back has amassed 313 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns. In the Super Bowl, the Bucs need their hot running back to be efficient throughout, meaning Fournette must rush for 4-plus yards when he gets on the ball on first down, earn at least half of what Tampa needs to get a new set of downs on second down, and, quite simply, get the first down on third down.
If Fournette's effective, I have no doubt the Buccaneers' offense will have success against Kansas City. The Chiefs will be forced to drop a safety down in the box to honor the improved run game, leaving the door wide open for Brady and the Bucs' talented receiving corps to exploit a numbers advantage with play-action, an area where Brady has made his opponents pay. According to Pro Football Focus, on play-action attempts of 20-plus yards, Brady completed 56 percent of his throws for 17.4 yards per attempt this season. Those are juicy figures. With Fournette running the way he is at this stage of the season, I'd look for the Bucs to increase their use of play-action (used on 20 percent of Brady's throws this season) in the biggest game of the year.
Fournette and the rest of the Bucs backs must be ready to be reliable options in the passing game, as well. While Fournette and and Ronald Jones have ripped off big gains as pass catchers, they haven't been without their fair share of drops. Fournette recorded a career-high seven drops, including two during the postseason, in his first year with the Buccaneers, while Jones has had five drops.
If Fournette and Co. come into this game flat, the Bucs will have all sorts of problems. The offensive line will be under tremendous pressure. Play-action will become limited. Brady will have to pin his ears back and simply beat the Chiefs -- more importantly, keep up with Patrick Mahomes -- as a sitting duck in the pocket. I'll tell you right now: That's not gonna work.
Fournette is in a great position to be the Bucs' X-factor because he's fresh and ready after logging a career-low 97 carries over 13 games in the regular season. In what he's described as a humbling year, Fournette's newfound appreciation for football and how far he's come might be his own X-factor. After a roller-coaster three-plus years in Jacksonville, in which he went through ups and downs on and off the football field, the former No. 4 overall pick was released right before the start of this season and eventually joined Tampa Bay. Expecting to be the starter, Fournette fell into a supporting role behind RoJo for most of the season, until the latter was sidelined on the COVID-19 list and with injuries.
Fournette's patience has paid off this postseason -- and should again in free agency. The 26-year-old has done more than enough to prove he's still the fast, downhill, physical runner he was in his rookie season, but with more maturity. It'd be smart for Tampa Bay to bring him back in 2021 as part of its two-back system, but regardless of what the Bucs decide, Fournette's earned a significant role somewhere.
After an up-and-down year that's picked up major steam at the right time, one more big performance could have Fournette walking off the field at Raymond James Stadium with a Lombardi Trophy in his hand and a nice bag of loot on the horizon.