- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2020

ASHBURN — While teammates were practicing, Terry McLaurin’s most important work of the week had just begun. For the next hour, the Washington wide receiver worked on a side field with trainers Thursday to test the injured ankle that prevented him from playing over the weekend. Washington’s training staff had McLaurin run around to see how he would respond.

It was a positive step, coach Ron Rivera said.

“He looked good,” Rivera said.

McLaurin’s status, however, is still very much uncertain ahead of Sunday’s finale in Philadelphia. Washington, obviously, would prefer to have its No.1 receiver return, but McLaurin is battling a high-ankle sprain — an injury that usually requires multiple weeks to heal. Washington is in a “wait-and-see” mode with McLaurin, hoping he can make further progress in the coming days.

McLaurin’s absence would put Washington in a tough spot, given the team has to win in order to make the playoffs. The team is already anxious to see if quarterback Alex Smith (calf) can be ready to go. Smith, who has missed the last two games, was a limited participant in practice Thursday and took first-team reps, an encouraging sign.

In Washington’s loss Sunday to the Carolina Panthers, Rivera said he noticed the impact of not having McLaurin out there. He said Carolina wasn’t “honoring the verticals,” playing condensed coverage that dared for a receiver to beat them deep down the field. Without having to worry about McLaurin’s speed, the Panthers used their safeties to take away short throws and stop the run.

“That’s when you miss Terry McLaurin,” Rivera said.

Before the high ankle sprain, McLaurin’s production had tailed off in recent weeks. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers notably shaded a slew of defenders toward the 25-year-old — forcing Washington to throw elsewhere. McLaurin, as a result, produced a pedestrian stat line in those games: two catches for 12 yards, two catches for 24.

Washington, though, won both of those games, in part, because the extra attention to McLaurin freed up the team’s other playmakers. McLaurin, too, adapted to the increased looks. Against the Seattle Seahawks, McLaurin’s most recent game, he finished with seven catches for 77 yards in the team’s 20-15 loss.

McLaurin, though, came out of the Seattle game banged up. Though he had been listed with an ankle injury for most of the season, Rivera said McLaurin’s high-ankle sprain happened when hauling in a catch against Seattle. He did not indicate if the injury was an aggravation of the pre-existing ankle injury, or something entirely new.

Offensive coordinator Scott Turner said Washington’s receiver play without McLaurin was “a little up-and-down” in Sunday’s loss to the Panthers. Running back J.D. McKissic (eight receptions, 77 yards) and tight end Logan Thomas (seven receptions, 63 yards) led the team in targets and catches without McLaurin. Cam Sims (three for 63) and Steven Sims (four for 52) led the wideouts.

“When (McLaurin’s) not out there, then someone else has to step up to that role and another guy has to step into the role that another guy stepped up from and it’s just kind of a trickle-down effect for the offense,” Turner said.

McLaurin, of course, has been Washington’s best receiver over the past two years. He spent most of this season in the top 10 receiving yards, and still ranks 12th with 1,078 — despite missing last week. McLaurin hit the 1,000-yard marker in just 13 games.

Before the season, any injury to McLaurin would have been a nightmare scenario for Washington. He was — and is — the team’s only star at the position. But now, Washington has seen a variety of players step up in 2020, with role players like Thomas and Cam Sims emerging. Rivera said that development helps lessen the damage of McLaurin not able to play.

That said, Washington wants him back.

“It’s just going to add fuel to the fire as we continue to go forward,” Rivera said. “If we can get everybody back on the field and feeling healthy, you’ll feel even better about the group of guys that we do have.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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