Week 12 Booms and Busts: Leonard Fournette making most of second act

On paper, the script wrote itself. Tom Brady, current MVP favorite, meets with Jonathan Taylor, Offensive Player of the Year kingpin. Let’s see who gets the last laugh at Indianapolis.

Instead, Leonard Fournette crashed the party. Time for a rewrite.

Last week, Taylor was the skeleton key for fantasy managers, posting a game for the ages and setting most (not all) games by himself. In Week 12, Fournette took that mantle.

Fournette had three rushing touchdowns Sunday at Indianapolis, and added a fourth through the air. Mix in 131 total yards and seven receptions and we’re looking at a 40-plus day in any kind of PPR league; not quite to Taylor's level last week (he joined the rare 50-point club), but a watershed game, nonetheless. And this monster showing came against perhaps the AFC's best rushing defense.

Fournette’s fourth score was a 28-yard rumble in the final minute, providing the margin in Tampa Bay’s 38-31 victory. Perhaps Fournette should have gone down inside the 5-yard line instead of scoring; although the Colts only had 20 seconds remaining, they raced into scoring range after a long kickoff return. But fantasy managers aren’t going to give Fournette’s points back. Keep spiking, No. 7.

Running back (7) Leonard Fournette of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scores a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Indianapolis, IN. (AP Photo/Jeff Lewis)
Leonard Fournette found the end zone four times, including the game-winner against the Colts on Sunday. (AP Photo/Jeff Lewis)

Fournette’s jammed quite a fantasy narrative into his five-year career. The Jaguars shockingly cut him before the 2020 season, and Fournette wound up getting a second chance with the Buccaneers. His regular-season stats were ordinary, but "Playoff Lenny" became a thing — he racked up 448 total yards and four touchdowns during Tampa's Super Bowl run.

Not all running backs get a second act in the NFL, but perhaps Fournette is aging gracefully as he steps into the danger zone for accumulated work.

Fournette’s Sunday heroics were needed because Brady never got comfortable in Naptown. He averaged just 6.6 per attempt, signed for 226 passing yards. The Colts did an outstanding job on Tampa’s outside receivers; it was cagey tight end Rob Gronkowski (7-123-0) who did the most damage downfield.

Taylor's lowest output in five weeks still strong

Taylor had a passable day on the other side, albeit less than what we’re used to. He ran for 83 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown, and had four short catches for 14 yards. If you were playing against Taylor, you’ll shrug and accept it. It was his lowest fantasy score in five weeks.

Carson Wentz had a typical Wentz day — a few snappy throws, a few loose ones. Most teams, after all, attack Tampa Bay through the air. Wentz chucked for 306 yards and three touchdowns, though he also absorbed three sacks and lost a fumble. Wentz also had two interceptions; one of them was a horrible decision, the other a forgivable pick on the final play, when he had to hurl the ball into the end zone and hope for the best. I feel for anyone who loses their matchup on a play like that.

Like the Colts, the Tampa Bay defense marked the key Indianapolis receiver. Michael Pittman Jr. saw 10 targets, but managed a modest 4-53-0 line. The Wentz scoring passes went to Jack Doyle, Ashton Dulin, and T.Y. Hilton. Not much fantasy juice from that.

While Fournette is unlikely to repeat this game anytime soon, we’ll gladly play him proactively against Atlanta next week. As for Taylor, he’s primed for another smash spot, traveling to Houston. Following that, Indianapolis takes its bye in Week 14.

The last days of the Steelers?

The shocking result from the early window was Cincinnati’s 41-10 demolition of Pittsburgh. There’s not a lot to say about the Bengals offense; Joe Mixon went off (165 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and Tee Higgins had a day (6-114-1). That’s going to happen sometimes. The Bengals can rock the scoreboard.

But it’s sad to see Ben Roethlisberger comprised as he was on Sunday. Oh, the Steelers put up a late, garbage-time touchdown, but for the most part this offense looked like a group on its last legs, because its quarterback is finishing out the string.

At least the narrowness of the Pittsburgh passing tree saved things for the receiving group. Target monster Diontae Johnson still posted 95 yards on 14 targets, Chase Claypool got to 82 yards, and Pat Freiermuth had a late touchdown, capping a 4-40-1 day. All of those lines will fit expectations. But there will be days where the Steelers don’t rally late, or take advantage of garbage time. And let’s also accept Najee Harris was a non-factor (8-23 rushing, 3-14 receiving).

The Steelers will probably be underdogs to every opponent the rest of the way. Mike Tomlin is one of the best CEO coaches in the NFL, but this situation appears unfixable.

Speed Round

• Initially I didn’t think the Cam Newton move would have any legs in Carolina, but then I started to rethink matters — perhaps Cam’s athleticism and rushing ability would bail him out. He was adequate against Washington, not terrible, not great, but his cratering Sunday against an ordinary Miami defense is worrisome. Carolina is going to be in the quarterback market again.

Newton's in his 11th NFL season. He's had a winning record three times. Quarterbacks wins are unquestionably an imperfect stat, but it's not a meaningless measure, either. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

• My favorite basketball teams are the ones who play positionless ball and keep the rock moving. The breakout of Cordarrelle Patterson and the morphing brilliance of Deebo Samuel show these concepts can work in the NFL. We’re going to see more hybrid skill players in the coming seasons.

• I grant you I’ve done some waffling on Kyle Shanahan this year, but no one wants to play the Niners now, for two obvious reasons. One, San Francisco is a very physical team, and two, it’s an especially creative offense. It’s a difficult matchup for your head, and a taxing one on your body.

• You can’t question Baker Mayfield’s toughness or resolve, but I maintain the Browns would be better with a healthy Case Keenum over a hurt Mayfield. And it’s a shame Cleveland is letting this go on, because there’s no great team in this division; it’s a very gettable crown.

When Cleveland took over on the final drive of Sunday night’s game, books had them +1100 to win — against Baltimore’s -3000 tag to hold onto the victory. Split the difference and the true odds of Mayfield leading a game-winning drive — for whatever the efficiency of a betting market means to you — was about 19.5-to-1. That shows you how desperate things are when the Browns are in a must-throw situation.

AJ Dillon didn’t have a run over eight yards, and while that sounds like red ink, it makes his 3.5 YPC a little more acceptable. He’s a powerful, finish-the-run player, the type of back opponents dread tackling. He also caught all five of his targets. I see no reason why the Packers can’t go thunder-and-lightning with their backfield the rest of the way. It’s a shame Green Bay never really filled the No. 2 receiver slot, because I like so much of this roster.

• I don’t know how badly Miles Sanders rolled his ankle, but his usage has been puzzling all year. Philadelphia didn’t want to run early in the year when Sanders was healthy, then the Eagles downshifted to a running game when Sanders wasn’t available. Now he’s back, and let’s face it, he’s easily the most talented back on this roster. And yet the team won’t commit to him. Nine carries against the Giants?

None of this is personal with me — I don’t have a Sanders share on any significant team — but I always root for logic. I don’t see any logic here.

• If Alexander Mattison needs to start for a few weeks, figure he’ll be 75-85 percent of Dalvin Cook.

• We’re three months into Atlanta’s season and Matt Ryan and Arthur Smith still can’t unlock Kyle Pitts. The Falcons are probably forced to give Smith multiple years, but if they can get anything for Ryan in the offseason — and I realize it might be very little — they need to think about moving on.

• No one in Jacksonville’s passing game has notably improved this year, and that’s all you need to know about this coaching staff. Broom it all away.