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Antonio Gibson is healthy again, and Washington is putting the offense on his shoulders

Over the last four weeks, Washington's Antonio Gibson has recorded the second-most rushes (95) and yards (358) of any running back in the NFL. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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One of Antonio Gibson’s favorite plays this season happened on the first drive of Sunday’s win at Las Vegas. It was third and one deep in Las Vegas territory, and the Washington Football Team, hoping to avoid settling for a field goal, called “Pitch 90 Outside.” Gibson broke left out of the shotgun formation, but before the ball even reached him, Raiders defensive end Yannick Ngakoue was in the backfield unblocked.

Gibson raced outside and saw defenders coming to set the edge. Last year, Gibson might have kept going, looking for a big play that wasn’t there, but instead he spied Ngakoue getting off-balance and cut back. Ngakoue stuck out a hand, grasping at air.

But that wasn’t why Gibson liked the play. He has made defenders whiff for as long as he has played football. Instead, Gibson was proud of what happened out of the cut. He “got north” as five Raiders closed in, lowered his shoulder as three crashed into him and fell forward past the first down marker. He turned a seven-yard loss into a drive-saving gain, using the athleticism that got him to the NFL and the power he has been honing since.

“Something we worked on all week [at practice] was getting my shoulder pads down, and that was something I did,” said Gibson, whose ability to churn out tough yards was limited earlier in the season by a shin injury. “It kind of sucked not being able to [bring power] early in the season, but now that I’m back using it, you can feel me come through the hole.”

On the next play Washington scored a touchdown, and the sequence serves as a microcosm of how Gibson has keyed a physical, run-first offense during the team’s four-game winning streak. Since the bye, which Gibson credited for getting him back to full health, Washington has put the offense on his shoulders. He has averaged 27.3 touches over the four games — more than his previous career high in any game.

Coach Ron Rivera praised offensive coordinator Scott Turner for shifting to a run-heavy attack, saying, “You got to learn to fall in love with the three-yard run.” Rivera also pointed out that Gibson’s ability to keep the unit on schedule — he entered this week with NFC-best marks of 800 rushing yards and 53 first downs — has allowed quarterback Taylor Heinicke to be efficient.

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Gibson might cede some touches Sunday against Dallas if complementary running back J.D. McKissic (concussion) returns, but Washington will continue relying on Gibson, who sets a bruising tone at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds.

“I don’t think it’s too much,” Rivera said of Gibson’s workload. “He’s geared himself up for each week, and he’s really kind of grasped that role. … He’s the kind of guy that I think he gets stronger as he gets more opportunities.”

In Gibson’s second pro season, Turner has been more willing to rely on the converted wide receiver because of his improved grasp on the position and consistent physicality. Gibson still makes mistakes — he has five fumbles, most among NFL running backs — but it’s clear he has earned more trust in critical situations. Last year Washington kept power back Peyton Barber on the roster to handle short-yardage rushes; this year, Gibson leads the league on third- and fourth-down runs with four or fewer yards to go, converting 24 of 28.

In late November, Rivera said the team still believed, as it did during the 2020 draft, that Gibson has the dual-threat potential of Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey. The key to that versatility, wide receiver Terry McLaurin said, is Gibson has “really developed mentally.” His growth in reading the line of scrimmage has allowed him to hit holes harder and be better in pass protection. Gibson said he has been able to weather increased contact because, as the hits piled up near the end of his rookie year, he learned how much time he had to devote to recovery.

This year, after suffering what he called a shin stress fracture, he wore a splint for four hours a day and underwent regular treatment. But it lingered, limiting his explosiveness and forcing the team to take him off the field at times. Gibson looked tentative, and his fumbling issues may have worsened because he was worried about his leg.

During the bye week in early November, he stayed in the area, going to the team facility for the hot tub, the cold tub and dry needling.

“Whatever they asked, I did it,” Gibson said, adding, “After the bye week, I feel like I was good to go.”

The next week, Washington upset Tampa Bay as Gibson had what he called the most physical game of his life. He grinded out 64 yards on 24 carries, and right guard Brandon Scherff said each collision sounded especially brutal. On Washington’s game-sealing drive in the fourth quarter, when the defense knew Gibson would run, he hammered away anyway. On the final scoring play, Gibson saw his lane inside collapse and adapted by bouncing it outside — the type of understanding that encouraged Rivera.

The week after, Gibson’s fumbling issue resurfaced. He lost the ball at the Carolina 13-yard line after a lengthy drive late in the first quarter, and Rivera benched him. Running backs coach Randy Jordan said that it was hard for Gibson but that a running back’s job responsibilities are, in order, ball security, pass protection and running. On the first drive of the second half, Gibson returned and ran six times in nine plays for 42 yards.

“What he did in the second half, that’s what we want to see: the resilience and the attitude,” Jordan said. “So I felt that he grew … to be able to handle it the way he did.”

Since then, Washington has put even more in trust in Gibson. He had a career-high 29 carries against Seattle and has caught 12 passes for 58 yards and a touchdown over the past two games. He feels as if he’s making strides with his eyes in pass protection, even though he missed one block against Las Vegas, and with his understanding of when to run conservatively and when to hunt the big gain outside. He has looked, at least for a few weeks, like the versatile back the team wants him to be with the unlimited skill set he dreams of having.

“I [want] to be put in any situation, be put anywhere on the field and be able to excel,” Gibson said. “I feel like that’s a complete back, a complete player, and that’s something I want to be known for.”