If every good running back tandem is like a one-two punch combination, as the saying goes, then Commanders rookie Brian Robinson Jr. has to be the jab. The imposing 6-foot-2 back is there to pound away at opposing defenses. A three-yard run there. A four-yard run here. Jab. Jab. Repeat.
Antonio Gibson, in this scenario, would be the straight right — the cross that lands, the heavy punch that can lead to knockouts. And in Sunday's 23-21 win over the Green Bay Packers, Washington threw a lot of one-twos. They mixed in some hooks and uppercuts — with third-down back J.D. McKissic, wide receiver Curtis Samuel and quarterback Taylor Heinicke all contributing on the ground — for good measure.
In all, the Commanders ran for 166 yards on a season-high 38 carries. Thirty of the attempts were jabs and straights.
"That's along the lines of what we've always envisioned," Rivera said Monday.
A day after the Commanders' biggest victory of the season, Rivera said there was still "potential for growth." The coach highlighted the defense — which has consistently improved over the course of the season following a poor start — but he could have easily been talking about the run game.
After all, Washington's rushing attack is finally starting to take hold with Robinson — who missed the first four games while recovering from gunshot wounds —and Gibson emerging as a formidable duo. The Commanders' run game had previously flashed this season, including in a Week 4 loss to Dallas without Robinson, but over the last two weeks, Washington has rushed for 294 yards on 66 carries.
That's the fourth-most attempts and seventh-most yards in that span. Washington has won both games.
"The run game is important," said Robinson, who had 73 yards on 20 carries in Sunday's win. "We have to be efficient, keep the offense moving and (it will) create opportunities in the pass game."
Washington relied on a run-heavy formula during its best stretch — a four-game winning streak — last season. That squad averaged 137 yards on almost 37 carries per game in that span as its run game and solid defense helped Washington dominate time of possession.
As Washington's offense sputtered to begin this year, Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner made it more of a priority to establish the run. That especially became the case this past weekend with Taylor Heinicke — last year's starter — back under center with Carson Wentz injured. Still, Washington's shift to the run game began even before Wentz's injury as coaches looked to help alleviate some of the pressure of its quarterback amid an uneven start.
Robinson, too, provides an element that was missing from Washington's rushing attack last year. The Commanders lacked a physical runner who could bully his way to first downs using his size. Gibson, last year's bell cow, is still big for a running back at 6 feet, but he doesn't run with the same sort of bulldozer style that Robinson is known for.
Instead, Gibson is more of an elusive runner. And that's why, in technically reducing his role, he could be better suited as a change of pace back for Washington.
Against the Packers, Gibson averaged 5.9 yards per attempt — the third-most of his three-year career among games in which he had more than five carries. The 24-year-old even had his longest run of the season, a 20-yard burst down the field.
The Washington Commanders have wrapped up their second day of practice this week. Here are the best photos from Thursday afternoon. Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders
Fittingly, Gibson's run came shortly after Robinson moved the chains to convert a third-and-1. On the same drive, Robinson then ripped off a 24-yard gain four plays later.
"That's how the tandem works is that you got one guy that can hammer it up inside, well, he's gonna soften a little bit and you bring a guy in that has the ability to go inside but can balance it and he bounces it a couple times, now it stretches the defense," Rivera said. "You come back, you hand the ball back off to Brian going inside and all of a sudden there's a crease or two that wasn't there earlier.
"That's kind of based on being able to mix those guys up."
After Washington's win over Chicago, Rivera noted that the team took too long to get Gibson involved. The Commanders were trying to feature Robinson, but Rivera noted the team had "gotten away" from Gibson in the first half of that contest. When the Commanders returned after halftime, Gibson was featured more and the balance between the two helped get the offense going. On Sunday, the workload between Robinson and Gibson was more balanced from the start. Robinson, who seized the starting job in training camp prior to his shooting, still took the majority of snaps, though Gibson was mixed in a lot earlier.
Rivera also mentioned the importance of getting Washington's backs involved in the passing game. Gibson caught a 9-yard touchdown and finished with three catches for 18 yards, while Robinson had two catches for 13 yards.
Of course, the margin for error with Washington's preferred game plan is thin. Teams often get away from rushing the ball when falling behind by multiple scores, meaning the Commanders' defense will also have to keep dominating for Washington to stick with the run.
But Washington appears to have the running backs to make it a successful strategy when the circumstances are right. Just like Rivera and Co. envisioned.
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