Commanders can be 'really good team' when Brian Robinson Jr., Antonio Gibson are rolling

DENVER -- This is what the Washington Commanders envisioned. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. powering through the middle on runs, using patience, vision and a punishing lowering of the shoulder to gain yards. Then he flashed his ability to help in the passing game as well.

And then there was running back Antonio Gibson, getting the ball in space and using his speed to make a big play.

If the Commanders’ offense is going to build off a 35-point showing in a win at the Denver Broncos on Sunday, those two visions must continue to occur. That starts Sunday against Buffalo Bills (1 p.m. ET, CBS), when Washington has a chance to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2005. The Bills allowed 172 yards rushing in an opening loss to the New York Jets, but only 55 in Sunday’s win over the Las Vegas Raiders.

That vision certainly was seen in the 35-33 win Sunday. Robinson rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns while catching two passes for 42 more yards.

Gibson caught three passes for 42 yards as the Commanders did a solid job in their screen game and getting the ball to their backs in the open field. He only carried twice for nine yards, but his 36-yard screen pass set up a third-quarter Robinson touchdown run.

“They really complemented each other,” Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said, “which is something we’re going to need down the line.”

Here’s why.

“When our backs are rolling, we’re a really good team,” Washington left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said.

Washington does not want the passing game to be solely responsible for a consistent attack. Quarterback Sam Howell is 3-0 as an NFL starter, but he’s been sacked 10 times in two games -- a function of his own inexperience and saying he holds the ball too long at times and protection that has broken down.

That’s why the run game needs to help power the offense. Two days before facing the Broncos, Washington coach Ron Rivera said Robinson was still learning Eric Bieniemy’s offense. Rivera said the offense coaches have been vocal about what he must do.

“They're constantly on him because they really think he can flourish in this offense if he can grasp it,” Rivera said, “do little detailed things, understand how important and the reason why to do a lot of these things. He's got tremendous natural skills and again, it's just finding his stride within what we do.”

Sunday, he found that stride in the second half when he rushed for 74 of his yards. In two games, Robinson has rushed for 29 yards on nine carries in the first half and 120 on 28 runs in the second half.

Rivera said at times Robinson hasn’t been patient enough on his carries, which sometimes leads to clogged blocking lanes as linebackers don’t have to wait to see where he’s going. But, in the second half, Robinson was more patient. All four of his runs that gained 11 or more yards occurred after halftime.

On a career-best 27-yard run, he patiently waited for his blockers to execute then hit the hole, broke a tackle and used a Curtis Samuel block downfield to go further.

“One of the things that they've been working on with him is really been just being patient, being patient, being patient,” Rivera said. “And sometimes being patient means [stutter] your feet and you can get a little anxious and instead of waiting for that crease or anticipating that crease developing, he hits it where he probably didn't need to.”

Robinson said the more he runs, the more comfortable he becomes. Rivera agreed, saying he could see his confidence grow and that he ran with more “pop”. It’s what Washington saw during a three-game stretch late in the 2022 season when he ran for a combined 290 yards.

For Robinson and Gibson, this zone run game forced them to adjust their styles a little, needing the patience to set up blockers and let holes develop. At Alabama and even last year, Robinson was more of a downhill runner.

“Sometimes you see something and you think it’s there, but it’s really not,” Robinson said. “You have to be poised and patient and wait for it to happen and then hit it.”

But on his 27-yard run, in a middle zone run, Robinson let the blocks develop as he flows slowly to the left. When he saw a crease, he cut upfield.

“You have to stretch it out and then when you see it, stick your foot and go downhill. That’s what we’re starting to see from both those guys,” Rivera said.

Robinson agreed. And he smiled when recalling that run because it was indicative of what happens when he’s patient.

“Definitely,” he said, “because I had to be super patient to even get into that hole. When I came back and watched the film, it took a lot of patience to make that read.

“It was a great read. It caught me off guard; I was so patient and slow before I hit it. Once I [saw] it, I just got to go.”

Said Howell: “He runs hard. He runs physical. He makes the defense feel it every single time he touches the ball. He is a killer when he gets the ball. It is definitely fun playing with a guy like that.”

This summer, Robinson said he never fully showed who he was as a runner last season. He missed the first four games after being shot twice in the knee in an attempted armed robbery at the end of August. He was limited by a thigh contusion late in the season.

“I know I got a lot more in the tank that I can show,” Robinson said. “Eventually, it will be all out on display.

“Every week I take another step.”

Meanwhile, Gibson showed his speed -- he was timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.39 seconds at the combine four years ago -- on the long screen.

“That’s something I look forward to,” Gibson said. “B-Rob [Robinson] got them on two [screens] and I got them on one. Those big gains help us out tremendously.”

Both Leno and receiver McLaurin, when asked about Robinson after the game, made sure to include Gibson in their answer. Leno called Gibson’s screen “huge” and McLaurin said they could rely on Gibson as much as Robinson.

Washington’s game plan will continue to include both and, on a weekly basis, it could change, though Robinson will always be the primary power runner and Gibson the third-down back.

“We’ve been shaking off the dust to get things rolling,” Robinson said. “We’ve been a work in progress.”

As long as that progress continues, the Commanders’ offense has a chance to be what it hasn't for a while: Good.