Tampa Bay running back Leonard Fournette alluded to a return to the field this Sunday against the Rams in the divisional round. On Tuesday, the fifth-year player tweeted, in part, "I WILL SEE YOU GUY[S] SUNDAY."
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians was less definitive about Fournette's return. Arians said he is still "wait and see" at a press conference on Wednesday. Fournette returned to practice on Thursday, a positive sign for his status come Sunday's matchup with the Rams.
Fournette was the team's leading rusher in the regular season, totaling 812 yards in 14 games. He hasn't played since exiting the Week 15 game against the Saints due to a hamstring injury. That was the same week Tampa Bay lost receiver Chris Godwin for the year in a shutout loss.
So what can we expect from Fournette, assuming he does play against the Rams on Sunday?
Bucs' RB Usage Without Fournette
Second-year player Ke'Shawn Vaughn led Tampa Bay in rushing in three out of four games without Fournette, including Sunday's win against the Eagles. The Bucs failed to eclipse 100 yards on the ground in two of four games following Fournette's injury, including last week against Philadelphia.
Tampa Bay could not completely compensate for Fournette's rushing production, but it did get by with a committee approach. What quarterback Tom Brady missed the most was a reliable target out of the backfield. In the first three games without Fournette, Brady only targeted his running backs 14 times—Fournette averaged six targets per game. Giovani Bernard returned to the lineup for the Eagles game and caught five of seven targets for 39 yards, the second-most on the team. He added 13 carries for 44 yards, and Vaughn led the team with 17 carries for 53 yards.
Significance of Matchup Versus Rams
Los Angeles has one of the fiercest run defenses in football. The Rams allowed 1,754 rushing yards in the regular season, the sixth-fewest in the league. Tampa Bay ran the ball just 13 times for 55 yards when the Bucs and Rams met in Week 3. Then they went out and acquired Von Miller. Brady aired the ball out 55 times in that game—a season-high. Fournette played against L.A. and totaled eight rushing yards on four carries and added three catches for 26 yards. Bernard recorded nine catches on 10 targets against the Rams—both season highs.
The Rams held the Cardinals to 61 yards in the first round of the postseason. Arizona was a top-10 rushing offense in the regular season and managed just 3.4 yards per carry against the Rams.
Expectations for Fournette should be tempered in his return to action. He last played over a month ago and isn't likely to come in and see the entire backfield workload. Even at the peak of his powers—and health—mid-season Ronald Jones III was still seeing some work. On Sunday, it might not be Jones who he's sharing work with while he deals with an injury of his own, but rather Vaughn, whose performance Arians recently commended.
Rust aside, the matchup isn't great for Fournette. There's also the added issue of the Buccaneers' banged-up offensive line. All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs did not participate in Wednesday's walk-through practice and was not seen at Thursday's practice due to an ankle injury. Center Ryan Jensen, also hampered by an ankle injury, reportedly did practice on Thursday. Fournette can rack up yards (and fantasy points) in a hurry if he gets active in the receiving game. Still, it's hard to see him truly having a big game against L.A., especially on the ground.
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