The Buccaneers are going to be without “Playoff Lenny” as the 2022 NFL playoffs begin.
Leonard Fournette won’t play for the Bucs in their wild-card matchup against the Eagles. He has dealt with a hamstring injury over the last few weeks, but it seemed like the veteran running back would have a chance to return ahead of this game.
However, Tampa Bay elected not to activate him from IR on Saturday. That rendered him inactive for the Sunday afternoon contest.
The Bucs will now be shorthanded at running back, as they are missing their top two options at the position. They are also without two of their top three wide receivers, so Tampa Bay will have to rely on its playmaking depth — and Tom Brady — to generate yardage.
Why isn’t Fournette playing this week? Here’s what you need to know about why he’s missing the game, and when he might be returning to the Buccaneers’ backfield.
Fournette is still recovering from a hamstring injury that he suffered during the Bucccaneers’ 9-0 Week 15 loss against the Saints. He was placed on IR and missed the next three Tampa Bay games as a result.
Some held out hope Fournette would be able to return from IR ahead of the wild-card round, but the Bucs didn’t feel comfortable enough activating him for this matchup. Backup Ronald Jones (ankle) is also out, so the Bucs will have to rely on Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Le’Veon Bell and Giovani Bernard to create an effective rotation and complement Tom Brady and the passing game.
Fournette returned to practice on Wednesday for the Buccaneers, so it doesn’t seem like he is far from returning. However, soft-tissue injuries, like hamstring maladies, tend to linger, so the Buccaneers will need to make sure Fournette doesn’t suffer a setback as they look to get him back.
“It’s just a little tweak (hamstring),” Arians told Walsh. “He wasn’t full speed when he really opened up and tried to push off a couple times. It caught him, so we’re just going to be very cautious with him.”
As such, it sounds like Fournette, who was expected to potentially play against the Eagles, isn’t too far away from returning. The Bucs are just playing it safe. His status in practice will bear watching should the Buccaneers advance. As long as he’s on IR, he will not be listed on Tampa Bay’s practice report, so that will muddy the waters around his availability.
The Buccaneers will likely use a committee approach with Fournette out of action. Top backup Ronald Jones (ankle) is also out of action, so Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Le’Veon Bell figure to handle most of the between-the-tackles work.
Meanwhile, Giovani Bernard is returning from an MCL injury and will probably serve as the team’s top pass-catching back on third downs. Bell could take some of Bernard’s workload if the Bucs look to ease Bernard back into action.