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Now in a different role, Antonio Gibson still finds ways to be impactful


Antonio Gibson waited patiently at the 4-yard line for the kickoff to open the second half against the Minnesota Vikings. The ball from Greg Joseph fell into his hands, and the running back used his 4.3 speed to sprint past Vikings players. 

Gibson slipped past a block set up by Jonathan Williams and left two defenders flailing on the ground before stepping out of bounds at the Commanders' 48-yard line. Two plays later, the Commanders used that good field position to take a 10-7 lead. 

Gibson's role has been tweaked from what he has been used to over the past two seasons. In addition to returning kicks, he is sharing the backfield with Brian Robinson Jr., who has operated as the offense's downhill threat, allowing Gibson to focus more on being the "slasher" of Washington's one-two punch at running back. 

The changes have allowed Gibson to unlock more of his potential to help the Commanders win games. 

"I think it is giving him an opportunity to be even more dynamic," head coach Ron Rivera said of Gibson.

The decision to find more unique ways of using Gibson's talents began back in training camp, when it became more and more apparent that Robinson could be a valuable tool for Washington's offense.

"Now, we're gonna be able to take that pressure off him, really give him an opportunity to get him out in space," Rivera said of Gibson during rookie minicamp. "And that's what he does best. He can make people miss."

Since then, Gibson has seen an uptick in his usage as a receiver. He already has 38 targets and 31 receptions while averaging 7.7 yards per catch -- a career-high. Assuming that continues, Gibson is on pace to shatter his career numbers as a pass-catcher with 59 receptions for 451 yards.

And as further evidence that Gibson has been successful so far this season, his Pro Football Focus receiving grade (84.2) is third among all running backs.

"There's a threat that if he gets out in space and catches the ball, he can immediately impact the offense because he is already down field or he's out in space where he can make people miss," Rivera said.

Gibson's ability to find space as a pass-catcher -- an ability he used as a receiver in college at Memphis -- has come in handy throughout this season, and it has helped the Commanders win games. Against the Green Bay Packers on third-and-8, Gibson found a soft spot in the Packers' zone coverage, slipped past linebacker Quay Walker and kept his feet in bounds for a nine-yard score that cut the Packers' lead down from 11 to four points.

"I think the biggest thing for him is that you look at his maturation process," said running backs coach Randy Jordan. "He understands the scheme. He understands where the play is supposed to fit."

Against the Indianapolis Colts, Gibson led the team with seven receptions and was second with 58 yards. He scored another touchdown -- another nine-yard catch that gave Washington a 7-3 lead -- but his other catches played a pivotal role in keeping the offense on the field.

Earlier in the Week 8 matchup, Gibson had two catches resulting in gains of 16 and 18 yards. Both plays were easy dump offs from Taylor Heinicke, but Gibson used his speed and quickness to make defenders miss and turn them into more explosive plays.

And when Washington was trying to climb out of a nine-point deficit, Gibson helped get the offense going with back-to-back receptions of 10 and 12 yards.

Returning kicks is a fairly new addition to Gibson's role, although he has experience doing it dating back to his days at Memphis. His first return came during Thursday Night Football against the Chicago Bears, resulting in a gain of 27 yards. Over the past four games, he has averaged 26.75 yards per return, which ranks third among players with at least eight returns.

"He has good vision, good size, and we know he can run," said special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor. "But he does a good job of getting where he is supposed to."

Over the course of Gibson's eight kickoff returns, not counting penalties, Washington has averaged starting at its own 28-yard line for drives. Granted, some of that is helped by Gibson's 45-yarder against the Vikings, but take that away, and the average is still respectable (25).

Once again, Gibson's shiftiness comes into play.

"He does a nice job of getting where the seam is and has a good feel for that," Kaczor said. "And then his size and quickness to put his foot in the ground and get there before it closes up allows him to get productive yardage."

And Gibson is still being used as a productive weapon on the ground. He has 22 fewer carries and 114 fewer yards than he did at this point last season, but his coaches have been impressed with his growth in the system.

"He's been pretty good in terms of his reads and getting his pass down and finishing with violence that we talk about," Jordan said.

Gibson was the all-around back last season, and he showed that he can do that. But there is more to Gibson than running the ball, and now that he is being used in ways that highlight his entire skill set, he is able to use that athleticism even more.

"He's making quick decisions, he's trusting himself," Jordan said, "and that's when you see probably the best of Antonio."

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