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Washington's running game provides blueprint for future success

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Antonio Gibson works his way through the New York Giants' defense during the 22-7 Week 18 win. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

As more and more NFL offenses are morphing into pass-heavy units that are looking to exploit opponents 30- to 40-yard gashes through the air, the Washington Football Team found its footing with a more physical style on the ground.

Washington, which finished the 2021 season with seven wins for the second-straight time, was in a deep rut heading into the bye week. A 2-6 record had sunk the team to the bottom of the league. Clearly, the formula of relying on its passing wasn't working -- that was made clear by a four-game losing streak -- so something needed to change.

The switch to a more run-heavy approach was the catalyst for a brief turnaround from Washington, and prior to a myriad of COVID-19 cases and injuries, it had Washington in place to make a postseason run. That kind of production is what gives Ron Rivera confidence in the unit as Washington prepares for Year 3 of his tenure.

"So if we can have the guys that we have and get those guys back and get those guys going…we have a very good chance," Rivera said in his Tuesday press conference.

Washington wasn't completely ignoring the running game prior to its bye week. It was averaging 118 yards per contest, which was good enough for 12th in the league, but it was clear that the offense was more centered around the pass. During Washington's first four-game losing streak, Taylor Heinicke was averaging 39 pass attempts per game, and while it put up some solid numbers, such as 430 yards against the Green Bay Packers, it wasn't resulting in victories.

The switch was the result of Washington wanting to put more of an emphasis on what it did well. The number of dropbacks dipped to a more manageable 30 attempts, while Antonio Gibson got at least 19 carries in Weeks 10-13. The game plan was more balanced (202 pass yards per game compared to 137 on the ground), and the team's turnovers dropped to just one per game.

"And when you watched those tapes and you watched some of those runs…it wasn't just the offensive line moving people outta the way," Rivera said. "It was the tight ends involved in the running game. It was the wide receivers blocking, but it was the runners. And so that made things better for us."

In addition to gaining more yards, Rivera added that Washington was faced with more manageable third down situations. During its win streak, Washington converted 22-of-36 third downs of five yards fewer. That conversion rate of 61% was much higher than its season average of 38.8%.

What's more, Washington was 5-1 when it ran the ball at least 30 times.

"We should see the things we did well, which was running the ball, and we should definitely build off it," said tackle Charles Leno Jr. "We don't have to completely revamp everything, but…running the ball is something we definitely can do moving forward."

It also didn't hurt that Gibson, who became the first Washington running back to rush for 1,000 yards since 2018, was coming into his own. The second-year pro became more patient and improved his decision-making -- a style that his teammates loved -- which partly led to seven rushing touchdowns.

"I hit the hole hard, got north and south," Gibson said. "Not trying to run east and west and trying to make something happen that's not there. I feel like it's all coming together."

The fact that Washington's running game wasn't nearly as successful in four of the last five games can be attributed to several factors. A bevy of COVID-19 cases forced the team to play backups rather than its top weapons. J.D. McKissic was placed on Injured Reserve, leaving Washington without a key piece of its offense as it fought for a playoff spot.

Washington did see its success on the ground come back in a 22-7 win against the New York Giants, but 226 yards came after Washington was eliminated from the playoffs. Still, it's clear that when the offense is at full strength, it has a foundation to build on.

And with a critical offseason coming up, it's a positive that Washington has something to build around.

"I like our guys. I do," Rivera said. "And I think it could not just them, but just the fact that playing a physical brand of football speaks well to what we can be speaks more volume."

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