JACKSONVILLE – If hope is a good thing, a No. 27 sighting might be very good.
Very, very good, actually.
“That would be huge for the offensive side of the ball,” safety Tashaun Gipson said.
That was the consensus around the Jaguars’ locker room at TIAA Bank Field Thursday – that if second-year running back Leonard Fournette isn’t exactly a savior, his return would be …
“That’s the hope, yeah,” All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey said.
Fournette, whose 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns rushing as a rookie last season led the NFL’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense, is expected to play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. That would be his third appearance of the season, his first since September 29.
Fournette, the No. 4 overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, has missed six of the last seven games with a hamstring injury sustained in a Week 1 victory over the New York Giants. He has missed all four games of the Jaguars’ current four-game losing streak.
“I know I’m happy about him coming back,” Ramsey said. “I know everybody should be. It’s going to help us a lot where it’s needed.”
Ramsey wasn’t alone.
Jaguars defenders such as Ramsey, linebacker Telvin Smith and Gipson talked Thursday of the positive effect Fournette’s could return not only on the Jaguars’ struggling offense/running game, but on a team that started the season 3-1 and is now 3-5 and tied for third place in the AFC South.
The Jaguars, after signing offensive guard Andrew Norwell in the offseason with the idea of improving enhancing the running game, instead have endured a series of injuries that have weakened the area.
Not only has Fournette rushed for 71 yards on 20 carries while playing less than a half in two games – Week 1 at the Giants and Week 4 against the New York Jets – other players key to the running game have sustained long-term injuries.
That group includes wide receiver Marqise Lee, starting left tackle Cam Robinson, backup left tackle Josh Wells, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and third-team running back Corey Grant. All are either out for the season or for at least two months.
Starting offensive linemen such as Norwell, guard A.J. Cann, right tackle Jermey Parnell and center Brandon Linder also were on the injury report and limited in practice while starting the first half of the season.
This week was the first week this season no offensive lineman has appeared on the team’s injury report, which means Norwell, Cann, Parnell and Linder should be collectively healthy Sunday for the first time this season.
The more high-profile injury news of the week has been that Fournette practiced Monday and was listed as practicing full on Wednesday.
“He’s a confidence boost to the team – just knowing that he’s going to be out there running the ball, it opens up the playbook a little more,” Smith said. “That’s something for our offense that we really need right now.”
The Jaguars, after rushing for 141.4 yards per game last season, have rushed for 95 yards per game this season. Jaguars backs have yet to combine for a 100-yard rushing game.
The Jaguars’ offense, after ranking sixth in the NFL last season in yards at 365.9 per game and fifth in points at 26.1 per game, rank 22nd (352.5 yards) and 29th (16.8 points) this season, respectively.
The offensive struggles also have strained the Jaguars’ defense. With the offense scoring just two first-half field goals in the last four games, the Jaguars held a lead in just one game in that span – a pair of three-point first-half leads in a 24-18 Week 8 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
That was the only lead the Jaguars have held in their five losses – and without a lead to force opponents into passing situations, a defense that ranked second in the NFL in sacks (55) and forced turnovers (33) last season ranks 16th (22) and 30th (seven) in the areas this season, respectively.
“When our offense holds them out there and stays out there a long time and when we get out there, you see what happens,” Smith said.