Running back Antonio Gibson and tight end Logan Thomas traded touches as Washington built a three-score lead over the Dallas Cowboys late in the second quarter. Gibson pounded the ball up the middle, growing more comfortable as a traditional running back, and Thomas found weaknesses in coverage, refining his technique at a position he switched to just three years ago. The pair exploited Dallas’s porous defense, which entered Week 7 ranked last in the league in points allowed, to become reliable options.
In Washington’s 25-3 win, the offense looked capable for the second week in a row. It stayed unpredictable, converted 60 percent of its third downs and strung together drives of double-digit plays. Others contributed — McLaurin totaled 90 yards and a touchdown; running back J.D. McKissic stepped into a void at slot receiver — but the groundswell of success was due, in large part, to career performances from Gibson (20 carries for 128 yards and a touchdown) and Thomas (four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown). McLaurin said he believes their progress helps the offense in an exponential way.
“The playbook is really opening up more and more, the more we execute,” he said. “We have to have [more guys involved] going forward so that defenses can’t key on just one guy or one tendency that we may have.”
Their progress highlights the difficulty of Coach Ron Rivera’s approach to the season. He’s straddling the present and the future, hoping his young, inexperienced roster can grow strong enough to seize the historically weak NFC East. But even if Washington falls short, the development of Rivera’s skill-position players fits into his grander framework of team building.
After the victory, Rivera thought back to the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. He saw them as a blueprint for building around a franchise quarterback: They gave Terry Bradshaw a reliable defense, a stout offensive line and plenty of playmakers. Washington might not know its franchise quarterback yet, Rivera hinted, but it must prepare weapons for him.
“Right now, it is important to make sure we’ve got the right kind of pieces,” he said. “I feel very comfortable with some of the pieces we have, but we need more. We’re going to continue to work and develop them.”
In his postgame news conference, Rivera said “people are sleeping on” Thomas. He was a gamble when Washington signed him in March because, despite an obvious need at tight end, it bet big on the then-28-year-old former quarterback with 35 career catches. Yet position coach Pete Hoener has been bullish on Thomas, and on Sunday’s broadcast, a Fox commentator noted the team felt he could become “one of the best tight ends in the league.”
Thomas took a modest step against the Cowboys. He was an effective receiver, often against Dallas linebacker Jaylon Smith, and he converted two third downs. Rivera called Thomas a “very smart” player who understands leverage and route progressions and can continue to get better. Thomas agreed, saying he wants to improve his run blocking, but he didn’t let his nitpicking diminish a career day.
“I’m feeling comfortable, feeling confident,” he said before adding with a grin, “Happy national tight end day.”
For Gibson, this was the strongest display yet of how he has built the skill set of a traditional running back. The rookie ran a few schemes at Memphis — off tackle, inside zone, jet sweeps — but Washington has expanded his range between the tackles with traps, counters and powers. Gibson said he has gotten a better feel for the timing of his blockers in the past two weeks, and Rivera, McLaurin and quarterback Kyle Allen noticed. They all pointed out that he has recently made cuts with more confidence.
Yet Washington still likes Gibson’s strengths. It gave him a jet-sweep-like handoff early in the first quarter Sunday, and he toted it 40 yards, nearly double Washington’s previous longest rushing play (22) this season. That home run capability is crucial for an offense that knows it needs chunk plays but struggles to create them. Data company Sportradar tracks “big plays” — rushes of 10 or more yards and passes of 20 or more yards — and Washington ranks fourth worst per game (4.3).
But Sunday, while forcing the Dallas defense to defend multiple options, Washington had Gibson’s long run and McLaurin’s 52-yard touchdown catch, the team’s first 50-plus-yard play of the season. That run was the reward during a long day for Gibson, whose 20 carries were his most since at least high school.
“I get beat up a little more, but I can take it,” Gibson said of playing running back. He added ruefully, “I know I will feel it tomorrow.”
The potential of what Gibson and Thomas can do in tandem stood out on the final scoring drive of the second quarter. After an incompletion on the first play, Gibson gave Washington a manageable third down by pounding the ball behind the right guard for five yards. Later he hammered away for gains of five and nine yards, and Thomas caught a pass on a crossing route for seven before the unit faced third and one at the Dallas 15-yard line.
Normally, Washington might have brought in short-yardage personnel and tried to blast the ball through. But not this time: It ran play-action, sucking the linebackers in, and freed up Thomas on a crossing route. Allen dumped down to Thomas, who stepped out of a tackle and raced to the end zone. Down there on the field, in the celebration of burgundy-and-gold jerseys, amid all the rain, the details were blurry. But the outline of the offense appeared to be starting to take shape.