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Why the Commanders’ less efficient, run-heavy offense is working so well

Commanders running back Antonio Gibson (24) vaults over a Falcons defender in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In the past few weeks, the Washington Commanders’ throwback, ball-control offense has paralleled the resurgence of the running game throughout the NFL. Though elite quarterbacks still dominate, passing is less efficient, and yards-per-carry leaguewide are at an all-time high (4.48). Running is fashionable again, and some of the best offenses in the league, including Philadelphia’s and Cleveland’s, have succeeded primarily because of creative and punishing rushing attacks.

In the past 12 weeks, several theories have emerged to explain the revival of the running game. One of the most common is that “two-high” defense — a popular scheme that features two safeties deep to limit downfield passing — creates a numbers advantage in the tackle box for rushing offenses. Another is that teams have spent the past few years building lighter, faster defenses to stop pass-happy offenses and therefore can’t be as stout against the run. Another is that, because there’s so much parity this year, fewer offenses have had to pass to overcome deficits. And some data suggests this all might just be a statistical anomaly.

Commanders Coach Ron Rivera said the explanation is simple: “Football is cyclical.” Atlanta Falcons Coach Arthur Smith suggested that, though play-callers know passing is more efficient than running, they must also adapt to their personnel. Atlanta and Washington lack elite quarterbacks, so to compete, they must lean on their strengths: rushing.

“It’s no different than basketball, where everybody predicted that every team in the league was going to play like Golden State,” Smith said. “Well, if you don’t have some good three-point shooters, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to shoot a bunch of threes. Sometimes it’s just necessity and practicality [to run the ball more].”

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Since Week 7, when Washington readopted this run-heavy approach, the offense has not been efficient, ranking 21st in the NFL in points per drive (1.87) and 22nd in expected points added per game, according to statistical website TruMedia. But it has been good enough because — in addition to luck and excellent complementary play from the defense and special teams — it has sustained drives and dominated the clock, largely thanks to the running game, which benefits from facing defenses built to stop passing teams.

The bedrock of the attack has been a big offensive line and physical running backs. This season, offensive coordinator Scott Turner made some tweaks, including more sets with multiple tight ends, and shifted his mind-set, calling himself more “stubborn” with the run. He noted that, even when Washington has success running the ball, defenses occasionally stay in pass-first schemes, daring him to stick with the less-efficient approach.

“Sometimes you’ve got to call their bluff and run the ball,” Turner said, adding that it can be risky because a run-heavy approach is fragile. “[The defense is] looking for one negative play. Then all of a sudden, now you’re out of [the running game], and they’re playing the pass. That’s what they’re trying to get to.”

In some games, Washington has exploited the trend toward faster, lighter defensive lines. In wins at Carolina last season and Philadelphia this season, the Commanders’ game plans included forcing edge defenders who would have preferred to rush the passer instead to stop a steady diet of runs. Or, as running back Brian Robinson Jr. put it after beating the Eagles: “Some of the guys on the defensive line was just soft on the edges.”

“When you hunker in and you grind it out, it begins to wear on them,” Rivera said. “Now you’ve got to be able to stop your opponent — because if they’re one of those fleet-footed offenses that scores a lot of points, you don’t have time to try and make it up [by running the ball]. But if you can keep the game close and you can grind it out and be physical and attack them at the line of scrimmage and just wear them down, [then you have a chance].”

Washington’s interior offensive line has been one of the keys to its success. Left guard Andrew Norwell, center Tyler Larsen and right guard Trai Turner are large and powerful — each is at least 6 feet 3 and 310 pounds — but not particularly agile. It seems as if Scott Turner has condensed his run calls to emphasize concepts his linemen run well, such as “duo,” a gap-scheme run predicated on double-team blocks.

The running backs can succeed in this physical setup. Even though Washington creates yards before contact at one of the league’s lowest rates (1.23, 25th), Robinson and Antonio Gibson are decisive and physical. And even though they also haven’t excelled at yards after contact, they rarely take losses. Since Week 7, Washington has rushed for zero or negative yards on just 14 percent of its attempts, the second-best rate in the NFL. The Commanders stay on schedule and can consistently convert manageable third downs because of their strength inside and their athleticism attacking the edges with runs such as jet sweeps.

During this stretch, defenses have shown more respect the Commanders’ ground game, seeming to play fewer two-high schemes and loading up the box. On Sunday, Atlanta used five down linemen consistently and Washington chugged along. Since Week 7, Washington has been nearly unstoppable in got-to-have-it moments; on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go, the offense has converted 18 of 22 rushing attempts.

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But there is a problem. The best offenses create explosive plays — defined as passes of 16 or more yards and rushes of 12 or more yards — which are key to boosting the odds of scoring. Baltimore and Cleveland pop an explosive run 11 or 12 percent of the time. Since Week 7, just 4.5 percent of Washington’s rushes (29th in the NFL) have been explosive.

“It’s great to wear them down, get those four-, five-, six-yard runs, but we want to create explosives,” running back Jonathan Williams said Sunday. “We want to be able to score in the run game from anywhere on the field.”

Williams added that running backs coach Randy Jordan has stressed to his players that they need to be more explosive. In practice, Jordan stands about 30 yards downfield, and the backs have to finish through him. Even though the likeliest candidate to deliver a long rush, Gibson, hasn’t created explosive runs during this stretch — just three in his past 69 carries — he’s consistently using his burst to turn checkdown passes into chunk plays.

Washington’s high-floor, low-ceiling rushing attack may ultimately prove unsustainable, particularly if it runs into an explosive, pass-first offense capable of scoring quickly. But for now, it has been enough, and embracing the approach has given the runners, blockers and seemingly everyone else in the building something valuable: confidence.

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