ASHBURN, Va. -- The Antonio Gibson the Washington Football Team wanted to see at running back this season showed up Sunday. He was bursting around the right end, sprinting downfield for 40 yards, hitting the hole hard and breaking an arm tackle en route to a touchdown. He made big plays and small gains that added up.
"He seems to be learning that more and more," Washington coach Ron Rivera said, "and getting better with it."
If that's the case, Washington (2-5) will benefit. After its Week 8 bye and a Week 9 home game against the New York Giants, Washington faces the Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals and Cowboys in consecutive weeks. All rank in the bottom seven in rushing yards allowed per game and in the bottom 14 in yards per carry. Only four of Washington's final nine games are against teams currently ranked in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed; three are in the top 10 in rushing yards allowed.
Meanwhile, Gibson continues to transition from playing mostly in the slot as a receiver at Memphis, where he had 33 carries in 19 games. He's already had 84 in seven NFL games, so he remains a work in progress. However, he has steadily improved and Sunday topped his previous best rushing day by 73 yards. He has 371 rushing yards (4.4 per carry) with four rushing TDs this season along with 19 catches for 147 yards.
"It's new to me," Gibson said.
While other backs will still play for Washington, Gibson is the one who offers the best balance. He has played 200 snaps this season; Washington has run the ball 99 times. Compare that to how often they run with Peyton Barber in the game (72% of the time) or throw when third-down back J.D. McKissic plays (73%).
If Washington is going to be competitive, it'll have to be because of a consistent run game and offensive balance as it lacks enough talent and depth to win any other way. But if Gibson keeps developing, Washington has the potential to play that way.
Since the opening game, Gibson has improved at running lower through the hole and generating more push after first contact. He has learned he can't turn every run into a big play, so he's better at taking what's available. Indeed, in Gibson's first 55 carries he lost yards 10 times. In his past 29, covering two games, he's lost yards only once; he's also rushed for four yards or more 16 times. It helped Sunday that he averaged 5.0 yards before first contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But, one week before his big day vs. Dallas, Gibson was held to 30 yards on nine carries against the New York Giants. Washington will go with the packages that are working; in the Giants' game, it was McKissic's turn with 41 yards rushing and another 43 receiving.
"I'm just learning the game," Gibson said, "[Knowing where] my blockers are going so I can ... kind of anticipate where I need to go before the play actually happens and it helps a lot. Just being patient and trusting my blockers."
On his 12-yard touchdown run vs. Dallas, Gibson showed more patience when pressing the hole, allowing a better cutback lane to open. It's not a play he ran often at Memphis because it was more about jet sweeps or outside zone. Here, it's counters and traps and the power run game.
"He's gotten more and more confident as far as having to run inside," Rivera said.
"LeBron won the championship, so special shoutout to him," Gibson said.
If Washington continues to have success with its run game, there could be more shoutouts. It helps, too, that it has versatility at running back. McKissic and Gibson have been paired together on the field 43 times this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Gibson had carried the ball 12 times for 12 yards in those looks before Sunday. Against Dallas, he rushed for 100 yards on 15 carries with McKissic on the field.
More often than not, it was with McKissic in the slot. With multiple injuries at receiver, and with McKissic having played the spot in college, Washington used him in that role. But Washington also used Gibson in that spot, including on his 40-yard run. Quarterback Kyle Allen faked a jet sweep to receiver Cam Sims and then a pitch to McKissic running to the left. Gibson followed behind Sims for a delayed jet handoff and an opening was created by the action of the play.
"I feel like I kind of made too many moves in the open field, should have just ran to the right to get into the end zone," Gibson said. "But it was a good explosive play right there."
One set up by having both backs on the field.
"We can build some special things around those packages," Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner said.
Gibson will still miss some holes, and even a week ago against the Giants he was too impatient at times; once, he ran through the hole side by side with the pulling tight end. Other times he has run into blockers.
It's all part of his ongoing education as an NFL running back.
"He's trusting his reads," Washington tight end Logan Thomas said. "When he makes the decision to hit the hole, he's hitting it and hitting it hard and breaking arm tackles and bouncing off people and going. I'm proud to see where he started and where he's at now. He just needs to keep going forward because there's no ceiling for that guy."