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Antonio Gibson has been the Washington Football Team's most productive running back with 391 rushing yards and five touchdowns, but fans are starting to wonder where Gibson, who is the NFL's third-most efficient back with a minimum 72 carries, has been on third-down plays.
The answer, as it turns out, is on the sidelines, as Gibson has only one touch on nine snaps in 105 third downs this season. The reason for that is simple: Washington is demanding a lot from a player who has limited experience at running back prior to being drafted, and offensive coordinator Scott Turner doesn't want to overwhelm Gibson as he gets more acclimated to his position.
"When you're a young player, especially with a guy like Antonio -- and we've kind of talked about this through the course of the year -- you've got to balance the physical with the mental. Physically, he can do everything. We know that. Then, it's just mentally. How much do we give him before it just overloads?"
It's clear that Gibson is a multi-dimensionally talented player; he has two plays that resulted in 40-yard gains -- one jet sweep and the other a screen -- and averages 5.1 yards per touch. But there are still some moments, like the fumble after a 21-yard gain on Washington's opening play against the New York Giants, where it's clear Gibson is still learning.
Another example is pass protection, which is an area where fellow running back J.D. McKissic thrives. McKissic has a pass blocking grade of 82.9, according to Pro Football Focus, which is fourth among running backs. Conversely, Gibson ranks last with a grade of 19.2.
The Athletic's Mark Bullock gives two examples of Gibson making a protection mistake against the Giants. The first came when Gibson didn't deliver a clean block on Jabrill Peppers, while the next came when Gibson didn't check for a cornerback blitz.
McKissic has been more effective at picking up blitzes, which has led to him being the team's go-to option at running back on third downs.
"JD has done a really nice job in that role," Turner said, "both running the ball and catching it in our pass protection stuff."
Gibson has become a "scary" option for the offense, according to head coach Ron Rivera, and Turner said the coaches don't want to give him so much information that he isn't playing fast. Rivera has seen steady improvement, though, and wants that trend to continue.
"Some of the things you're starting to see is him getting a little better at understanding the protections," Rivera said, "which is very important getting him out there on the third-down units. That's one of the things we're hoping for: for him to continue to develop."
Turner believes in Gibson, and he intends to keep giving him the ball. With more reps in practice, he can continue to be the team's primary option.
"Just the continued exposure to those types of plays is going to get him better," Turner said Nov. 4. "It's hard for me to say exactly how far along he is, but you can definitely see the week-to-week improvement."
The Washington Football team held practice at the Inova Sports Performance Center in Ashburn, Virginia, on Nov. 12, 2020. (Photos courtesy of Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)
-- Getting extra evaluation from Logan Thomas and J.D. McKissic: This isn't the first time McKissic and tight end Logan Thomas have been teammates. The two played for the Detroit Lions in 2019, and the roster is largely the same since they left the team via free agency. When asked how much that helps Washington design a game plan for Sunday, Rivera said "a lot."
"These are guys that can tell you a little bit about each player. They can tell you about the coordinators, their tendencies, stuff like that. It's important. It is. Both those guys are smart football players, so both of those things are pretty good. That's probably a plus. ...You do try to get what you can from guys that were with the team that you're about to play."
-- More forward movement from Montez Sweat: Defensive end Montez Sweat has been one of Washington's standout players on defense. He leads the team with five sacks and has 22 tackles to go with two forced fumbles. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Sweat has spent more time as a traditional defensive end instead of dropping back in coverage, which has led to the increase in production.
"He's able to work now in individual drills and constantly focus on setting the edge for us, being disruptive in the run game and then rushing the quarterback. He's getting more reps at it. He's doing a great job for us. I think having more time devoted to that and spending less time dropping in coverage."
-- Jack Del Rio is amazed at Alex Smith's drive: Del Rio has only been around Alex Smith for a short time, but he knows of Smith's injury and the months of rehab the quarterback has committed to making a comeback. He has seen Smith make progress from participating in 7-on-7 drills to being named Washington's starting signal-caller. The journey Smith has taken has amazed him.
"It's pretty incredible to watch a guy have such strong desire and determination and fight. I think we all respect the heck out of that. It's just great to see. It's a feel-good story. Obviously, I'm hoping he gives us a lift and can give the team a lift. It's an amazing story for a guy to come back through the things that he's been able to battle and make it back onto the field."
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