The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 10-3, and they’ve gotten to that record largely on the strength of their spectacularly efficient offense. So far this season, Tampa ranks third in yards per game, first in points per game, second in yards per play, first in points per drive, first in expected points added (EPA) per play, and first in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA.
The main driver of their success, obviously, is Tom Brady. The current MVP favorite, the 44-year-old living legend is playing at as high a level as any quarterback in all of football. Brady has completed 68 percent of his passes at an average of 7.5 yards per attempt, and he’s thrown 36 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. His ability to not only get the ball out quickly, but push it downfield while doing so, makes Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich’s offense sing.
Of course, it helps to have Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the outside and Rob Gronkowski at tight end, as well as arguably the NFL‘s best offensive line. And especially in more recent weeks, it has helped to have Leonard Fournette emerge as a core piece of the offense, rather than a mere complementary player who splits snaps with multiple other running backs.
Fournette has played at least 80 percent of Tampa’s offensive snaps in each of the last three games, and he’s totaled 49 carries for 257 yards and four touchdowns, along with 18 receptions for 98 yards and two more scores. The pass-catching, in particular, has been revelatory: Fournette has multiple receptions in every game this season, at least six receptions in five of the team’s eight most recent games, and a league-high (among running backs) 62 receptions overall. On Sunday night, he’ll try to lead the Buccaneers to their fifth straight win when they host the New Orleans Saints.
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Brady has long been one of the NFL’s best short-range throwers, as he proved over and over by repeatedly finding backs like Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and James White out of the backfield during his time with the Patriots. In 19 seasons with New England, Brady targeted a running back with more than 21 percent of his pass attempts. He completed them 72 percent of the time at an average of 6.4 yards per attempt, with 30 percent of the passes creating a first down and 3.5 percent resulting in a touchdown.
During his first season with Tampa, the completion rate was similar (71 percent), as was the yards per attempt figure (6.3), but those passes rarely moved the chains (16 percent) or created scores (1.7 percent). Fournette has a catch rate near 80 percent this season, a first-down rate of 35 percent, and a touchdown rate of 2.6 percent. That’s a massive improvement over what he and the other backs supplied a year ago.
Fournette is also having easily the most efficient rushing season of his career. He’s at a career-best 4.5 yards per carry. His runs have created positive EPA at a 47.4 percent rate, according to Tru Media, far above the league average of 38.3 percent. He’s gotten a first down on 26.3 percent of his carries and gained at least five yards on 36.3 percent of each, figures that also easily exceed the NFL averages of 22.9 percent and 34.3 percent, respectively. On third- or fourth-and-1, Fournette has converted 76.9 percent of his opportunities into a new set of downs or a touchdown, far better than the average rate of 67.8 percent.
All but one of this figures marks the best of his career.
Naturally, it helps that Fournette is running behind that same offensive line that protects Brady. Tampa’s group up front ranks only 15th in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grades, but also checks in first in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards per carry and third in the share of their rushing attempts that have been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage (12 percent), indicating that they’re doing a good job of putting Fournette in position to succeed.
So does Tampa’s play-calling. Only 12.9 percent of Fournette’s rush attempts have come against an eight-man box, per Tru Media. That’s the sixth-lowest rate among 42 running backs with 100 or more carries so far this season. Considering Fournette is averaging only 1.6 yards per carry in those situations, that makes sense. It’s a big part of the reason why only 12.3 percent of Fournette’s rush attempts have been stopped at or behind the line, far south of the league average of 16.6 percent.
They’re not just going to ram him into the line against a crowded front, banging their heads against the wall when it’s far preferable for Brady to throw the ball in those in those situations anyway. Instead, Fournette gets to run into light boxes and generate a head of steam, often with pullers out in front of him to take care of any pesky potential tacklers who might be lurking in open space. His sheer size (6-foot, 228 pounds) makes him extremely difficult to bring to the ground (hence the broken tackle rate mentioned earlier), and his overall athleticism (he graded out in the 96th percentile of athleticism among running backs based on his performance at the combine) makes it even tougher.
Crucially, Fournette doesn’t waste time dancing in the hole. According to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, Fournette spends just 2.65 seconds behind the line of scrimmage on his average carry, the fourth-lowest average time among 48 players with 75 or more carries. (He was at 2.76 seconds during his final season in Jacksonville. A tenth of a second might not seem like a lot, but every beat matters when holes open and closer in milliseconds.) He just gets north and south, taking advantage of the room those guys up front create for him. As such, he’s averaging 0.33 rushing yards over expectation per carry, the 13th-best mark among that same group of 48 players.
Perhaps most importantly, Brady seems to trust him. He did not have much apparent trust in any of the backs last season, and it resulted in the offense’s inconsistency through the first half of the season. Fournette’s emergence in the playoffs and consistent success this year have gotten him into the circle of trust, and allowed the Bucs to combine the best of their push-it-downfield system with the best of Brady’s surgical work underneath; and the overall success of the passing game gives Fournette more room to run than almost any back in the NFL. It’s a wonderful mix, and it has the Bucs once again looking like an inner-circle contender.