- The Washington Times
Wednesday, September 15, 2021

ASHBURN — Antonio Gibson’s progression as a running back is often measured by whether he hit the hole hard enough. When the 23-year-old fumbled in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, for example, coach Ron Rivera said Gibson “bounced a little too quick” to the outside and didn’t press the running lane as he should have.

On the flip side, while discussing Gibson’s growth this week, teammate Terry McLaurin praised the running back for being decisive. 

“He’s hitting the hole really hard,” McLaurin said.

Gibson, after all, is still learning the ins and outs of the position after primarily playing wide receiver in college. Last year, Gibson enjoyed a breakout campaign as a rookie — emerging as Washington’s leading rusher, one whose role expanded as the season went on. By the end of the year, Gibson finished with 204 touches (rushing attempts and catches) in 14 games.

For this season, Washington may be ready to expand Gibson’s role even further. Against the Chargers, Gibson had 20 carries — tying a career high. Ahead of Thursday’s game against the New York Giants, Rivera said some of Gibson’s workload in Week 1 was the reflection of a close game. But that’s not all it was.

“He’s ready to handle it, but it was also part of the flow of the game,” Rivera said. “When the game’s going to go that way, that’s what you can expect. … These first few weeks is when you’re discovering and learning and trying to understand (a player’s role), but while you’re playing these first few games and trying to learn, you’ve got to make plays and you’ve got to win football games. It’s that simple.” 

As a runner, Gibson has been effective with the ball in his hands. Even as his attempts increased, Gibson still averaged 4.5 yards per carry against a sturdy Chargers front. McLaurin noted how Gibson can run through arm tackles and make defenders miss on the perimeter. Washington saw that again in Week 1 when Gibson ripped off a 27-yard gain.

Gibson, too, did seem to quickly rush the lanes opened by Washington’s offensive line. According to Next Gen Stats, Gibson spent just 2.26 seconds behind the line of scrimmage per snap — quickest of all NFL rushers in Week 1. 

After the loss, Gibson agreed with Rivera that he was trying to do too much on the play where he fumbled. The turnover was particularly costly because Los Angeles recovered inside Washington’s 5-yard line, paving the way for the go-ahead and game-winning score. It was just the third fumble of Gibson’s career.

But he called his performance a “major improvement” from his rookie season. 

“I felt like I was running way harder hitting the holes than last year,” Gibson said, “getting north to south. Just running with my size, my speed, playing behind my pads.” 

Washington’s brass showed faith in Gibson just before the start of the season, too, by releasing veteran Peyton Barber. In 2020, Barber was primarily used as a short-yardage back whose four touchdowns were no longer than three yards. But after cutting Barber, Rivera and the staff turned to Gibson — trusting his 6-foot-2 frame would come in handy in the clutch.

Gibson proved to be effective in that area when given the chance.  In the third quarter, Rivera decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from Los Angeles’ 36-yard line — dialing up a Gibson run from the shotgun formation for a 5-yard gain. Gibson also converted two other third-and-short situations during the game.

This week, Gibson was listed on the injury report briefly with a shoulder injury. The injury traced back to the Chargers game when Gibson was examined by the team’s doctors on the sideline. Gibson said afterward he had a “little bruise,” but would be good to go.

On Wednesday, Gibson was removed from the injury report — a sign he’ll play against the Giants. And an indication he can handle a bigger workload, if need be.

“He’s really developed mentally,” McLaurin said. “You can tell he‘s a lot more comfortable in the scheme. …The more he develops, the more it helps all of us, obviously. I think it’s no secret how much we use our running backs in this offense and how versatile they could be. So I think he does a really good job.”

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

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