- Covered the Buccaneers since 2009
- Joined ESPN in 2016
INDIANAPOLIS — Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette not only had four touchdowns that propelled the team to a 38-31 road victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday — including a gashing 28-yard touchdown run with 29 seconds left — he also gave an impassioned halftime speech that resonated with teammates after they were down 24-14 at the half.
The Bucs already had lost three games on the road this year — at the Los Angeles Rams in Week 3, at the New Orleans Saints in Week 8 and at Washington in Week 10 — a major hurdle they’ve had to try and clear in order to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
“I was like, ‘You have to have a will and a want,'” said Fournette, who rushed for 100 yards on 17 carries, and added eight catches for 31 yards. “You have to be willing to risk everything. Play by play, you have to want to win, you have to want to fight, each and every play.’ I think they understood that message and played their lights out.”
The Bucs struggled to find their rhythm on offense in the first half, turning over the ball twice — first on a Chris Godwin fumble on third down that was forced by linebacker Darius Leonard, with safety Andrew Sendejo making the recovery, and then on a Tom Brady pass intended for wide receiver Scotty Miller that was picked off by Isaiah Rodgers.
On defense, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting was outright beaten by Ashton Dulin on a 62-yard touchdown. They also gave up a 16-yard scramble to Carson Wentz on third-and-15, and then a 22-yard reception to Jack Doyle on third-and-10 that set up a 4-yard touchdown from T.Y. Hilton just before halftime.
The Bucs also expected NFL leading rusher Jonathan Taylor to run the ball more, but he had just eight carries in the first half.
“You could tell the mood — people’s energy was down. And it wasn’t like we [were] out there getting our asses whooped. It’s just the little things separating us to win the game from them,” Fournette said. “So just trying to boost everybody coming out. And thank God it worked.”
Fournette’s teammates agreed that his words inspired them.
“He just pretty much told us to keep fighting,” said safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who made a leaping interception on a jump ball intended for Michael Pittman Jr. with 5:35 to go in the third quarter. “We control our own destiny and [if] we wanna be the team we wanna be, we’re gonna have to step up and win games like this.”
“He definitely said some stuff that got us going,” said outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who notched a sack-forced fumble off Wentz that he recovered in the third quarter. “He said we were a special group — that’s one of the reasons he came back. And we know we can play [like] a special group. We’ve just gotta show it. Show it and play out.”
Added Brady of the speech: “[It was] huge. They just made big play after big play. That’s what it takes to win. You have to make the plays. There’s not a lot of margin of error. There are really well-coached teams that have a lot of good players, and everyone’s working hard to win. So, you’re either going to make the play or you don’t. And we didn’t make them as much in the first half, but we certainly made them in the second half.”
Fournette set a personal record and tied a Bucs franchise record with four TDs from scrimmage.
“We were all watching him run and just do great things with the ball. It energizes us on the sideline,” Winfield Jr said. “We see him running, going hard, and it makes us wanna play better.”
“He spoke at halftime, got us going, then came out there and backed it up with all the stuff he was talking about. I’m just appreciative of him doing what he did at the end of the game to seal it for us, during the whole game because he was playing good the whole game, making plays the whole game, and that was the difference in the game for us.”
Added tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught seven passes for 123 receiving yards: “It was excellent. It got everyone fired up. He went out there and he backed it up too, and it just shows just how much we respect Lenny.
“I felt like we were flat in the first half. The energy wasn’t there. The second half, we just went out there and played as a team — offensively, defensively — the defense was creating turnovers, we were scoring, Lenny was just running the ball amazing, and we just stuck together too. And to have a win on the road like that — that was a playoff caliber win.”
At 8-3, the Bucs still have road games left at the Atlanta Falcons next week, at the Carolina Panthers in Week 16 and at the New York Jets in Week 18, but coach Bruce Arians believes Sunday marked a turning point in their season as they continue to vie for top playoff seeding, which would guarantee homefield advantage during the playoffs.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Arians said. “We’re gonna play some tough road games, but I don’t think we’re gonna play any tougher.”
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