LANDOVER | Checking back in wasn’t part of the plan for Antonio Gibson. Originally, Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera wanted to pull the running back, along with the rest of the starters, early in Saturday’s preseason game against the Carolina Panthers.
The Commanders benched Gibson for a drive after he coughed up the ball in the first quarter of Saturday’s 23-21 loss to the Panthers. But after the rest of the starters were pulled, Rivera had the 24-year-old return to the field to play with the backups. The coach said he told Gibson to “stick his foot in the ground and go” — giving the back another chance to make up for the earlier miscue.
Miscues are adding up for Gibson, and the former third-rounder knows that he can’t continue to turn over the football this upcoming season. Last year, no non-quarterback fumbled more than Gibson, who had six total and lost four.
If the problem persists, Saturday’s game provided a preview of what’s next: The Commanders turned to rookie Brian Robinson Jr. and the third-rounder looked impressive with Gibson sidelined. Robinson was heavily featured on Washington’s 14-play, 82-yard drive, which ended with the 6-foot-2 back scoring a 1-yard touchdown.
“Antonio’s got to run harder,” Rivera said. “When he starts to shuffle and go sideways, that’s when he struggles. When he goes hard, we saw that when he came back in the second half. He put his shoulder down and ran hard. That is what he is capable of doing. That is when he is at his best, so we talked about that.
“I’m very pleased with how he came back in the second (quarter) and ran the ball.”
Part of the problem with Gibson’s fumbles is that they’re usually costly. In Saturday’s preseason opener, for instance, the Panthers recovered the ball at Washington’s 19-yard line — leading Carolina to score just three plays later.
No turnover is ever ideal, but Gibson’s fumbles seem to especially hurt Washington. Of his four fumbles lost last year, three came in Washington territory — two of which resulted in a touchdown (in Week 1 against the Chargers) and a field goal (in Week 14 against the Cowboys). The other lost fumble, in Week 10 against Carolina, happened at the Panthers’ 13-yard line — costing Washington a chance to score.
“Very frustrating,” Gibson said. “Can’t have it. It’s a big-time, big-game league and you can’t have that happen.”
Left tackle Charles Leno relayed a message to Gibson after the play. He said he reminded the former third-rounder of how hard he worked on the issue last year and to not let it define him again. To Leno’s point, four of Gibson’s fumbles came within the first seven weeks of the team’s 18-week schedule. In the back half of the year, Gibson fumbled only twice.
Leno said he told Gibson to “not be passive” and keep attacking.
“Understand, that’s one play,” Leno said. “It doesn’t have to happen again.”
Despite Gibson taking snaps with the second unit, his playing time wasn’t out of the ordinary. The Memphis product finished with 17 snaps, falling in line with other starters like wide receivers Terry McLaurin (19) and Curtis Samuel (17).
Still, it was unusual to see Gibson running behind even someone like Jonathan Williams, a reserve back who spent last year splitting time between the practice squad and the active roster. Williams received a carry directly before Gibson rattled off a four-yard gain
The run was more of what Rivera wanted to see.
“Every play is designed to score but when it’s not going to score you have to get what you can,” Rivera said, “and (if you) try to make more out of it, that’s when you run into trouble. (He’s) got to understand if it’s not there, just ‘stick my foot in the ground and get what I can and protect the ball.’”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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