ASHBURN — Antonio Gibson could tell the play was a winner in practice. One of two running backs split next to Carson Wentz, the 24-year-old would run free on a deep corner route — thanks to the play-action fake to fellow back Jonathan Williams.
And so sure enough against the Jaguars this past weekend, linebacker Foye Oluokun hesitated, Gibson sprung loose and Wentz hit the running back for a 26-yard gain.
“That’s just something most teams aren’t going to look for,” Gibson said.
As creative as the play design is, the call worked for another reason too. The Commanders finally were taking advantage of Gibson’s route running.
A former wide receiver turned running back, Gibson had a career-high eight targets in Sunday’s 28-22 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars — hauling in seven for 72 yards. The Commanders got the 2020 third-rounder out in space, getting Gibson open with a variety of routes.
Since he was drafted, coach Ron Rivera and his staff have talked about the need to get Gibson more looks in the passing game. But this may be the year Washington actually follows through on that plan.
What’s changed? For one, the Commanders now have a quarterback in Wentz who can push the ball consistently down the field and needle passes in through tight windows. And the team’s added playmakers give offensive coordinator Scott Turner flexibility in how he can use Gibson.
But the real key may lie in a coaching staff that has decided what it wants out of Gibson. The third-year back still had 14 carries Sunday, but Gibson was poised to lose his starting job before the shooting of rookie Brian Robinson Jr. The Commanders, it seemed, were prepared to use Gibson in a different manner — especially in their passing attack.
“Around the perimeter, I think the guys don’t realize how quick he is and how fast he is and how quick he can turn it on out in space,” Wentz said of Gibson ahead of Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions. “Obviously, he‘s an exceptional athlete. Catches the ball extremely well. That makes it hard for people to defend him.”
Under Turner, the Commanders have always emphasized involving running backs in the passing attack. But in past seasons, that role largely belonged to backup J.D. McKissic. In 2020, Washington’s first year with Turner, McKissic led the position in targets with 110 and ranked second among backs with 80 catches. McKissic’s workload was reduced last year, but that was partly due to injuries.
When Gibson was involved in the passing game, he was used mostly on checkdowns and screens. One of Gibson’s best plays last year was a 73-yard touchdown against the Buffalo Bills on a screen pass. But he finished the year with 42 catches and 294 receiving yards — the latter of which was 24th among running backs, according to Pro Football Reference.
This year, Gibson’s role change became clear after Washington’s first preseason game. That’s when Gibson fumbled against the Carolina Panthers, a recurring issue that caused Rivera to turn to Robinson. In the next game, Robinson earned the start and Gibson played a reserve role in which he caught three passes for 37 yards.
“I expect the same from Antonio that I’ve expected from him since the day he got here and really, even more because he’s a better player than he was when he got here,” Turner said. “He’s worked up to that and he’s gonna play well.”
That proved to be the case in Week 1. His 130 yards from scrimmage were the third-most in his career. The other two? Gibson had 111 and 115 rushing yards to fuel those totals. On Sunday, he had just 58.
“I can run routes,” Gibson said. “It’s just a matter of them calling the play for me in those situations.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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