Fournette emerges from mini-funk to lead Bucs in rushing, receiving
Safety valves merit few style points. Leonard Fournette's busy afternoon featured far more checkdowns than touchdowns, more blue-collar rumbles than bursts. On Sunday, the man of a thousand nicknames wasn't poetry in motion, just priceless in the flat. "He did a great job," quarterback Tom Brady said. "Yeah, absolutely, great job."

Mostly pedestrian since his 127-yard rushing effort in the season opener, Fournette re-emerged Sunday with one of his most productive all-around afternoons as a professional. By the end of the Bucs' 21-15 victory against the Falcons, Fournette led Tampa Bay in rushing (14 carries, 56 yards, one TD), targets (11), catches (10) and receiving yards (83).

His 10 catches were a personal-best for a single game, and his 139 yards from scrimmage tied his single-game high as a Buccaneer. He became the seventh running back since the beginning of the 2009 season to record 10 or more catches, 80 or more receiving yards and at least one receiving touchdown in a single game.

To boot, the career effort was coincidental. No Bucs tailback had caught 10 passes in a game since Earnest Graham, who was recognized Sunday on the video board. Graham did it against the Lions on Oct. 21, 2007.

"Brady and Coach (Byron) Leftwich (the Bucs' offensive coordinator) said the running backs are going to be expected to catch the ball at least 15 to 10 times, and as you see, that's what happened (Sunday)," Fournette said. "And for me, just going over those little notes like that, and understanding that's what (Brady) wants, that's what he needs, I'm just trying to be the best player I can be to help this team make us win ball games."

Questions about Fournette's workload and whether he could sustain it over an 18-week NFL season arose after he posted images of his workout immediately upon returning from a Week 2 win in New Orleans, where he managed only 65 yards on 24 carries.

Fournette said the brief session was needed to work out some soreness. More red flags were hoisted the following two weeks, when he totaled 32 yards on 15 carries (with 12 catches for 92 yards) in consecutive home losses to the Packers and Chiefs.

But he appeared far more fresh than fatigued at the outset Sunday, bouncing off left tackle for a 14-yard run on the game's second play. On the Bucs' second touchdown drive, he converted on third-and-8 with a 10-yard catch from Brady in the right flat, and later scored on a 1-yard run.

"He was a beast," said receiver Mike Evans, whose 40-yard catch in the shadow of the front-left pylon set up Fournette's scoring run. "All week we knew (the Falcons) get real soft in coverage and they like to play deep in their coverage, and we knew that the backs would have a good chance to get a lot of balls this weekend."

Also benefiting from that Falcon philosophy was rookie Rachaad White, who had three catches (on four targets) for 28 yards, with five carries for 14 yards in his most extensive offensive action to date. Should White continue progressing as a pass catcher and pass protector, thereby earning Brady's trust, Fournette's workload could lessen.

Which could make him fresh for the final stretch, where Fournette has made a nickname for himself in the past. "Just trying to play football," he said. "(Sunday's stat output) wasn't planned, wasn't expected, but I'm grateful. God's just blessed me tremendously to play with these guys, this organization, this team."

Joey Knight, The Tampa Bay Times, published 10 October 2022