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Washington's Offense Shows Progress By Relying On Its Playmakers

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Running back Antonio Gibson bolts downfield during the Washington Football Team's game against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 4, 2020. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)

The Washington Football Team was in desperate need of a spark in the second quarter of Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Facing a 14-0 deficit, Dwayne Haskins Jr. took the snap and delivered a quick strike to Terry McLaurin, who turned the three-yard pass into an 11-yard gain. Two plays later, Haskins found Dontrelle Inman open in the middle of the field, moving the chains with a 13-yard completion. Then, facing a 3rd-and-11, Haskins connected with Antonio Gibson, who caught a screen pass and sprinted through the defense for a 40-yard gain.

Gibson plowed into the end zone on a two-yard rush four plays later, capping off a 10-play, 75-yard drive that got Washington back in the game.

Led by career days from Haskins, Gibson and McLaurin, Washington turned in its most productive offensive performance of the season, gaining 343 total yards compared to 350 for the Ravens. The offense showed progress from how it looked in Week 1, and while the team is still going through growing pains, Sunday's game offered a glimpse into its future.

"It's a growing process, but I've been very pleased with what we've done offensively," head coach Ron Rivera said Monday. "I love that we're trying to find ways to get the ball in Gibson's hands and into J.D. [McKissic]'s hands, how we're trying to use the tight end a little bit more, the different running schemes that we have, the different personnel groupings, how we're trying to get the ball to Terry, how we're trying to spread the ball to the other receivers."

Gibson and Mcissic's usage was at the center of Washington's offensive success against the Ravens. The duo combined for 174 yards -- half of the team's total production -- while averaging 6.7 yards per touch. McKissic started the season as the more featured back, but the workload was more even against the Ravens with McKissic playing in 55% of the snaps compared to Gibson's 44%.

Much of their success revolved around Gibson, who had 128 total yards and a touchdown. As the team continues to unveil its plan for how to use the third-round pick, Gibson's production has slowly increased to the point where Washington is starting to unlock his full potential. Gibson has a Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) of 33.5% through four games, which is the best in the NFL among running backs with a minimum of 32 rushing attempts.

"I think he's really close [to a breakout game]. I think we saw glimpses the last few weeks, we really have," Rivera said Friday before the game. "It's funny, too -- it's not just him breaking out, but it's us breaking out as offensive coaches and understanding what he does best and where to put him. We're just learning."

Both Gibson and McKissic were brought in because of their versatility, but most of their success through three games came as conventional running backs. Coming into Sunday's game, their 206 rushing yards accounted for 79% of their total production.

That changed against the Ravens, as they had 11 receptions for 122 yards. They were targeted 13 times, which was just three fewer than the first three games combined.

"The running back position is very important to him," McKissic said of offensive coordinator Scott Turner in April. "The running back position is evolving; guys have to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield. When you've got a lot of weapons on the field, you want to be able to use everything that this guy can give you."

McKissic said defenses have to account for that versatility and change their game plan to "respect the position." That provides more opportunities for receivers like McLaurin to thrive. McLaurin caught 10 passes for 118 yards Sunday, including a 39-yard bomb in the fourth quarter, pushing him to fifth in the NFL with 387 yards.

Turner admitted prior to the Browns game Washington needed to get the ball to McLaurin in order to start faster. In the first two games, he was targeted eight times in the first half and once in the first quarter.

McLaurin has gotten an uptick in attention over the last two weeks, though. Twelve of his past 22 targets have been in the first half, and his 14 targets against the Ravens were a career-high. That has contributed to Washington putting up at least 180 yards in the first half against the Ravens and Browns compared to 139 against the Eagles and 91 against the Cardinals.

"Terry's just been everything that was advertised," Riviera said. "He's a guy that exceeded expectations, and it's one of those things that if everybody knew he was going to be like this, he would've been a first rounder or a second rounder. Just fortunate to have him. Everything he works on, he excels at."

As a result, Haskins, who completed 71% of his passes Sunday, showed improvement as well. He did not commit a turnover against the Ravens after throwing three interceptions against the Browns, and he threw for a career-high 314 yards and had his first-career rushing touchdown.

"There were some things that were positive," Rivera said. "Obviously, he made some good throws. He threw the long one to Terry at the end of the game. It was inconsequential at that point, but again, doing the things he needs to do and showing the growth -- that's what we're looking for."

Haskins' play Sunday is indicative of the offense's growth as a whole. He took an 18-yard sack that played a role in Washington failing to convert a fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter, and while both teams' yardage was nearly equal, Baltimore took advantage of more scoring opportunities in a 31-17 win.

That's why the offense, while improving, is still a work in progress.

"It's with hard work and these guys understanding what we're asking of them and trusting the process that we have a chance to develop," Rivera said. "Who knows? Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but it is a process as I remind the players that we're going through."

Washington's new offense has only played four games, but it would appear as if it is slowly formulating a blueprint that involves relying on Gibson and McKissic as multifaceted weapons, turning to McLaurin for big plays and giving Haskins the chance to make efficient throws.

It could be the start of creating a more successful unit.

"Right now, we still got a lot of work to do," Gibson said after Sunday's game. "I feel like once we put it all together, we're going to be something to deal with for sure."

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