- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2022

LANDOVER — As he prepared to leave the locker room following Sunday’s 19-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons, running back Brian Robinson Jr. put on a Commanders hat so large that it made the shape of his head look like Toad from Super Mario Bros. Or the Great Gazoo from “The Flintstones.” Or Rick Moranis’ character from “Spaceballs.”

Where did he get it? From a friend who started a “big hats” company, Robinson said. 

As one does. Naturally. 

“If y’all want one, let me know,” he said before walking out. 

In retrospect, Robinson’s big hat was the perfect— ahem — cap to the rookie’s big day. Feel free to groan, but against the Falcons, the 23-year-old rushed for a career-high 105 yards on 18 carries — setting the tone for a dominant day on the ground for Washington. Robinson also added another 20 yards on two catches, one of which resulted in a 14-yard touchdown for the Alabama product. 

To win their third straight game, to improve to 7-5 after a 1-4 start, the Commanders had to hold on until the very end. Cornerback Kendall Fuller grabbed an interception in the end zone with less than a minute left, killing an Atlanta drive that had gotten all the way to the 4-yard line. Defensive tackle Daron Payne helped create the crucial turnover by tipping Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota’s pass, which landed right in Fuller’s arms.

The stop marked the latest defensive stand from a Commanders defense that has fueled wins in six of the last seven. But on Sunday, the most notable development of the afternoon was the emergence of Robinson and the run game. As much as the Commanders have run the ball over this stretch, Sunday was their most effective outing yet. Washington rushed for a season-high 176 yards on 37 carries, good for 4.8 yards per attempt. 

Robinson cracking 100 yards wasn’t just meaningful from a personal standpoint — though the running back took pride in reaching the milestone, three months after he was shot twice in an armed robbery attempt. 

The performance was significant because if Washington is going to rely on this grind-it-out, run-heavy style of football, then the Commanders need an intimidating running back who can bulldoze his way through the line of scrimmage and wear out opponents as the game progresses. 

The Commanders thought they gained that in Robinson on draft night when they selected him in the third round. And he’s finally starting to show it more and more, especially as he gets further removed from the shooting that sidelined him for the first four weeks of the season. 

“He’s running with a sense of urgency,” left tackle Charles Leno said of Robinson. “Coming back, he was more timid. But now he’s comfortable. He’s starting to get more confidence in himself.” 

Sunday’s win was big in the sense that the Falcons (5-7) were right behind the Commanders in the standings, with both clubs fighting for one of the final wild card spots in the NFC. As a result of the victory, Washington is in a much better position — not just because of potential tiebreakers, but also because the Commanders now have the chance to pass the New York Giants (7-4) next weekend with a win. 

In this span, the Commanders have established a distinct identity — one that differed from what players and coaches envisioned to start the year. Initially, the team focused on trying to get the ball to playmakers such as Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson. That approach was intended to showcase the arm of quarterback Carson Wentz and the team’s formidable trio of receivers. 

But the Commanders were forced to pivot.

Wentz struggled even before breaking his finger in Week 6, an injury that paved the way for quarterback Taylor Heinicke (138 yards, two touchdowns and an INT) to take over. Coach Ron Rivera talked openly about the need to get back to the run, similar to how the offense operated in 2021 — when a run-centric approach sparked a four-game winning streak.

In the last seven games, the Commanders have averaged 144 rushing yards on 35.7 attempts per game. For context, only the Chicago Bears — the most run-heavy offense in the league — ran more over that span. 

But prior to Sunday, the Commanders’ rushing attack was more of a slow churn. The team rated out well in advanced statistics such as success rate and expected points added, but the basic yards per attempt underwhelmed. The team’s average of 3.6 yards per carry over the last six weeks entering Sunday’s action ranked 26th in the league. 

Robinson and the running backs boosted those numbers against the Falcons. And by gashing Atlanta’s defense, the Commanders again were able to effectively control the clock. In the second half, Washington held a nearly 9½-minute advantage in time of possession with the Falcons running only 14 plays before their 10-play, 80-yard final drive.

That disparity was especially apparent in the third quarter when Washington pounded the ball on an efficient 11-play, 60-yard series that ended with a Heinicke 16-yard touchdown pass to tight end John Bates. 

The score helped break the tied game as Washington took a 16-10 lead. Though Joey Slye missed the extra point — a mistake that could have proved very costly if Atlanta had scored late — the kicker did add a 45-yarder to give the Commanders some additional breathing room in the fourth.

The Commanders survived even with Atlanta’s late push and giving up 167 rushing yards. 

“I liked the toughness and the grit,” Rivera said. 

That toughness and grit can be noticeably seen in the team’s running backs. Antonio Gibson added a scrappy 32 yards on nine carries, while Jonathan Williams — filling in for an injured J.D. McKissic (neck) — provided a spark with 22 yards on four attempts. 

But no back personifies that toughness more than Robinson. On the first touchdown of the afternoon, Robinson caught a pass in the flat and then used all of his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame to plow his way through two Falcons defenders en route to the end zone.

In the locker room, Williams remarked how Robinson still probably isn’t at his physical peak given he missed the start of the season. The running back, Williams said, is only going to get better from here. 

“I’m not sure what his birthday is, but that day God gave him a lot of strength and some size,” Williams said. “So, it’s genetics. He’s just big and strong.”

Robinson’s birthday is March 22, 1999, for the record. 

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

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