J.D. McKissic received an inside hand-off to the right, took one lateral step and planted his right foot in the grass at State Farm Stadium in Arizona. With a crease beginning to open up to start the second half, there was no time to waste.
McKissic made a small cut to slip between center Chase Roullier and pulling tackle Cornelius Lucas and then burst up field, racing away from a sea of scarlet and white before attempting to power through two San Francisco 49ers defenders. Cornerback Jimmy Ward eventually brought him down, but not before he picked up 17 yards for his longest gain of the season.
McKissic has been primarily used as a pass-catching back since entering the NFL in 2016, and he's had by far his best season with 58 catches for 426 yards. But his explosive scamper Sunday was one of several runs that proved he is more than just a receiving threat. With rookie Antonio Gibson sidelined with a toe injury, McKissic set career highs in carries (11) and rushing yards (68) to help the Washington Football Team secure its fourth straight victory.
"Well, I think the biggest thing with J.D. is you see his versatility," head coach Ron Rivera said in early November. "You see it as a receiver, you see it as a runner. He's a quality back. I think the thing that he's showing is he can be a first-, second- and third-down guy. Do you want him touching the ball 30 times a game? Probably not if you don't want him to take that type of pounding. But you want the ball in his hands as much as possible. I do think he is a quality football player."
Turner admitted that McKissic has given the offense a lot this season -- he ranks second on the team in touches and third in scrimmage yards -- but they needed even more from the fifth-year veteran. Over the past two games, he's delivered with 156 total yards.
McKissic had never carried the ball more than 46 times in a season before 2020, yet the 5-foot-10, 195-pound fire starter began Sunday's game in the backfield. He received the team's first three carries and gained 17 yards, including an 11-yarder around the right end during which he dragged defenders for a first down. By halftime, he led Washington with 5.2 yards per carry on six attempts.
"Sometimes people look at a guy's build and just say: 'Oh, he's really a scatback. He's a third-down guy,'" Rivera said about McKissic. "And then all of a sudden you find out that he's got a skillset that not only fits to third down, but also on second down and you go, 'Wow, this kid's a legit football player all the way around.'"
With Washington holding a 13-7 halftime lead, McKissic almost single-handedly moved the offense into field goal range to start the third quarter.
He amassed 46 yards on just four touches, starting with the aforementioned 17-yard jet and continuing with an 13-yard catch out of the backfield and another 17-yard gain. On his second big run, McKissic took an inside hand-off to the left, snuck through a crevice, slipped out of tackle and then avoided another before the 49ers finally corralled him at the seven-yard line. The drive ended with a 21-yard chip shot from kicker Dustin Hopkins, serving as the final points Washington would need in an eventual 23-15 triumph.
"We ran the wide zone pretty good," McKissic said. "The [run-pass option] game, I think it played a factor in our success in the run game."
McKissic is not the long-term answer at running back because he does not have to be. Gibson was exceptional before his injury, scoring eight of his 11 touchdowns and accounting for more than 60% of his rushing yards between Weeks 7-12. Whenever he comes back, he'll shoulder the team's rushing load while McKissic continues to be one of the NFL's best receiving backs.
Until then, though, McKissic has shown the ability to do both. He's averaging 4.5 yards per carry on 66 attempts this season and has picked up 20 first downs. He's not built to run between the tackles yet is effective anyway.
When the ball is in McKissic's hands, good things happen. They just happened to come as a rusher against the 49ers.
"A guy that right now is our third-down back, J.D. McKissic, is no slouch at all," Rivera said before the Detroit Lions' game. "He's a terrific football player, and we've seen that day-in and day-out and game-in and game-out."