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.