Leonard Fournette was one of the most feared running backs in college football for years at LSU. His combination of raw power and athleticism is unmatched and made him a top prospect in last springs draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars selected him fourth overall in order to fix their awful run game, and have to put together a more balanced offense that will put less on the shoulders of the often maligned Blake Bortles.
Fournette had a breakout game Sunday in his fifth NFL appearance as the Jaguars upset the Pittsburgh Steelers. The running back carried the ball 28 times for 181 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged 6.46 yards per carry.
Those numbers are unusual for a power back, but Fournette did manage them in the Jaguars power run game. Half of his 28 carries were right up the middle, and he averaged 3.36 yards on each of those runs.
The Adjusted left tackle YPC removes his 90 yard run at the end of the fourth quarter as it heavily skews his numbers
His runs up the middle came from more than just pounding it up the gut, though. He still manages to use his surprising agility when surrounded by defenders and can break upfield for extra yards.
Pittsburgh runs a stunt on this play. Their linebackers cross each other while an edge rusher comes across to plug up the gap in the middle. The Jaguars fullback takes care of the first man, but the second man coming on the stunt has a free run at Fournette as he comes out of the backfield. Fournette somehow manages to swerve his large frame around and entirely dodge the defender. He quickly cuts to the open room on his left and scampers for a few extra yards. He did not gain much on the play, but his ability to escape what should have been a play that didn’t gain anything and turn it into a few yards helps keep the offense on schedule.
Fournette’s work up the middle did not only include impressive plays in the trenches. His first touchdown of the day was a show of true athleticism.
The Jaguars, the Steelers, the fans in the stadium and everyone at home knew the Jaguars were going to go right up the middle with their rookie running back from the two yard line. Pittsburgh collapsed inside and probably would have done a great job shutting off Fournette. It was all for naught though as Fournette just chose to jump over everyone.
As the game went on the Jaguars continuously pounded the Steelers defense inside. Fournette just kept on punching them in the gut over and over and it took its toll over time. The third quarter was disastrous for the Steelers offense and it allowed the Jaguars to slow the game to a halt.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw back to back interceptions for touchdowns in what was a close two point game early on. Jacksonville got way ahead at put the game on ice. Their opening drive of the fourth quarter took eight minutes off the clock. They ran the ball 13 times, eight times with Fournette, and did not pass the ball once. They drove from within their own 10 yard line into field goal range on the other end and put the game out of reach.
Bortles was a mere bystander for much of the Jaguars second half. He did not throw a single pass in the fourth quarter, and only dropped back to pass twice in the third (one incompletion, one sack). He only threw 14 passes all game.
The Jaguars continuous rushing up the middle affected the Steelers defensive play calling. They began to crash nearly everyone inside leaving them vulnerable to counters or just any runs to the outside.
On this rush towards the beginning of that earlier mentioned marathon of a drive, he gets to the second level with ease on a counter.
Jacksonville pulls their tight end across the formation to seal the left side for their running back. The Pittsburgh defense was caught entirely off guard. They all head towards the center, and end up biting on the counter towards the right. Fournette waltzes into the second level after a quick cut in the backfield. At the second level, he makes an impressive hesitation move to force a defender to overrun his tackle then heads upfield for a few more yards.
Fournette is a smart runner. He knows his limits and has the vision and patience necessary to find holes even when they may not quite exist yet. The rookie can beat you in the trenches with his overwhelming strength and in the open field with his deceptive speed and agility.
On this late rush, he bounces a run to the outside after nothing opens up in front of him.
This run looks like it was initially supposed to be off of the right guard. Pittsburgh quickly collapses, and Fournette’s cut back lane is plugged by a defender. He bolts towards the outside but there is still one unblocked man he has to beat off of the edge. His speed allows him to get a step on the Steelers linebacker, and an impressive stiff arm puts him on the ground. Fournette is now on the second level and in the open field. In one of the wildest decisions I have ever seen a player make during a live NFL play he waves on an incoming tackler. He leans into the oncoming defensive back as they collide into each other. The players hop up and exchange words, but Fournette definitely won this exchange.
The Steelers defense could have done better against Fournette all game, but they actually did a decent job Sunday especially without any help from their offense. They finally broke late in the fourth though, and Fournette ran for what will probably be the longest run of his career.
With only two minutes to play and having dealt with Fournette all day everyone knew this ball was being handed off to the rookie. The Steelers loaded all 11 of their defenders in the box and felt fully prepared for the obvious play call. After seeing so many runs up the middle all day the defenders all were way to quick to go with their first instinct. They crashed inside hard. Fournette takes his run outside, beats a man at the line and takes off for a 90 yard rumble and a game ending touchdown. The Steelers defense was beaten and broken and Fournette had his breakout moment.
Jacksonville has an amazing defense. Jalen Ramsey is already one of the best defensive backs in the NFL and they have the ability to entirely shut down some offenses. An ideal game for the Jaguars will be a low scoring slugfest, where the Jags defense can hold the opposing offense in check while playing time of possession on the other side. Fournette can tire out any defense, and the less Bortles has to throw the ball the better.
Not every game will play into their hand as much as Sunday’s, but Fournette may be the perfect centerpiece of this Jaguars roster.
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