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Steelers

Jaguars rookie RB Leonard Fournette quick to hit full speed as Steelers await

Chris Adamski
| Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, 7:12 p.m.
Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette runs for a 10-yard touchdown against the Jets in the first quarter October 1, 2017 in East Rutherford, N.J.
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Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette runs for a 10-yard touchdown against the Jets in the first quarter October 1, 2017 in East Rutherford, N.J.

The NFL's highest-paid running back will be on one side Sunday at Heinz Field. The one tied for the highest-drafted active back in the league will be on the other.

The latter's path was paved by the former. And each scaled his way to the top at his own pace.

Literally.

No running back gets to the line of scrimmage this season faster than Jacksonville's Leonard Fournette, per the NFL's Next Gen Stats. The legendary patience of Le'Veon Bell likewise is supported by the league's data.

“Every running back has their own niche and what they're good at,” Bell said. “(Fournette) is a one-cut-and-go guy. He gets to that second level quickly. He sees the hole, he takes it. I'm more of a guy who likes setting up blocks.”

Bell and Fournette are two of the NFL's three busiest running backs, Bell has a league-high 87 carries and rookie Fournette is third with 81.

Combine that with their team's respective ranks in the NFL in rush defense (Jacksonville is last, the Steelers 23rd), and it's easy to see what each team's game plan will be.

“You've got to knuckle up,” Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said. “They are playing vintage 1999-2000 Madden — two fullbacks, three tight ends. You know it's a run.”

While with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, the Steelers — in theory, at least — could opt to instead rely on passing, Blake Bortles' Jaguars are much more transparent.

Per Next Gen Stats, defenses have “eight men in the box” for 50.62 percent of Fournette's carries and 56.67 percent of teammate Chris Ivory's carries — third most and most in the NFL, respectively.

Bell, by contrast, has faced “eight men in the box” on 16.09 percent of his carries — the fifth-lowest ratio for any qualifying running back.

“It's an old-timer type thing,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “But if you can run the football and dominate the game and keep yourself in the game by running the football, you can usually win most of your games. I think that's what they want to do.”

Fournette was drafted No. 4 overall in April, tied with Ezekiel Elliott (2016) and Darren McFadden (2008) as the active running backs taken the highest in the draft. The Steelers got lucky they didn't have to invest such a premium pick to nab Bell, who went 58th overall during a 2013 draft in which no running backs were taken in Round 1.

But it was the success of Bell, in part, that changed a dynamic that running backs weren't worth investment. Over the past three drafts, five running backs have been top-15 picks.

Bell said he is acutely aware of the changing paradigm.

“The run game hasn't died off,” he said. “There is more value to the running back position now.”

A student of the art of a ball carrier, Bell enjoys watching the league's other top backs — a fraternity in which the freakishly athletic Fournette quickly became a part of.

“He's impressive — real impressive,” Bell said. “I love watching him run.”

Fournette's 4.5 speed belies someone of 240 pounds — a skill set that has been wowing people since he was a seemingly instant Heisman Trophy candidate at LSU.

Actually, even before then, Steelers tackle and LSU product Jerald Hawkins said.

“When he came on a recruiting visit, and they said ‘running back' and I was like, ‘running back? What you mean running back?' ” Hawkins said. “I thought he was like a 'backer or something.

“He's always had the size and the talent. ... A much different back than Le'Veon, though.”

The average time it takes to reach the line of scrimmage on Fournette's carries (2.44 seconds) is the fastest in the NFL. Bell is the second-slowest to the line of scrimmage (3.21 seconds) after taking a league-high 3.09 seconds in 2016.

“Fournette is one cut — and he's gone,” Hawkins said. “Bell, he's patient. But once he hits it, he's gone also.

“Two different backs, but honestly, two awesome backs.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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