The Washington Football Team is in the middle of its bye week, but there is still work to be done as it evaluates how it can have a stronger second half of the season. The NFC East is still up for grabs, and with opponents like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks still on the schedule, the team will need to figure out how to build on its strengths and improve its weaknesses.
But as head coach Ron Rivera's inaugural season continues to unfold, there is much to gleam from the first seven games. Here are five things we've learned about Washington:
1. Antonio Gibson is electric.
Running back Antonio Gibson has 84 rushing attempts in seven games -- nearly 2.5 times the 33 carries he had in two seasons at Memphis. There are times when it's clear the former third-round pick is still learning the position, but there are also moments where Gibson's talent shines through.
Gibson, who leads the team with four touchdowns, has 518 yards of total offense, which is second only to Terry McLaurin’s 580. He is the most efficient rookie running back with a minimum of 56 rushes, according to Football Outsiders, and has a team-leading 103 touches.
"I think he's gotten more and more confident as a guy coming out of the backfield as far as having to run inside," head coach Ron Rivera said after Washington's 25-3 win over the Dallas Cowboys. "We have him running traps and counters and powers that are kind of more inside. He seems to be learning that more and more and getting better with it."
Gibson flaunted his progress in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens when he caught a screen pass and weaved through the defense for a 40-yard play as part of an 82-yard receiving day. Three weeks later, he had an even better performance against the Cowboys when he rushed for 128 yards on 20 carries, which was highlighted by a 40-yard run on a jet sweep.
Plays like that are certainly impressive to offensive coordinator Scott Turner, but what has stood out to him the most is Gibson's ability to get yardage on plays that aren't necessarily blocked well. Instead of getting taken down for a one-yard gain, he'll break a tackle and get an extra four or five yards. That makes things easier for the offense, Turner said.
"Those are the runs that don't necessarily show up on the highlights," he said, "but those are the ones that enable you to get a first down and then get more of the big plays."
2. Terry McLaurin is a top 10 receiver.
Wide receivers coach Jim Hostler acknowledged ahead of training camp that McLaurin was a talented young player, but he was quick to talk down any early hype for the former Ohio State Buckeye.
"Everyone else's expectations are that he becomes a star receiver...and is going to catch 100 balls," Hostler said. "We are just worried about his daily improvement, growth as a player and his ability for the quarterback to trust him."
He has not made 100 receptions yet, but his production is among the league's best receivers. He ranks sixth with 577 yards to go with two touchdowns. He has nine 20-plus yard receptions, which tied for fourth, and has 28 receptions resulting in first downs.
"Terry's one of those guys that prepares the right way, every day," Rivera said. "He's one of those guys that understands how to take care of himself, how to prevent injuries, how to take care of injuries. He's a young pro. We have some young guys that could learn from just watching him."
In terms of his development, McLaurin has 119 more receiving yards through seven games than in that same span during his rookie year. He has caught fewer touchdowns, but his catch percentage and average yards per game are also higher. It also helps that he has 69 targets, which are only 24 fewer than the 93 he had in all of 2019.
"He's doing a really good job of taking the ball and getting vertical, protecting the ball when he does get vertical, knowing when to cut back," Hostler said Oct. 9. "Those all come with experience and those types of things. I'm sure that's all part of his maturity and growth."
3. Chase Young affects the entire defense.
New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones dropped back for a pass at Washington's seven-yard line when he saw Chase Young less than a yard away from slinging him to the ground. The pressure forced Jones to get rid of the ball early, which resulted in an interception by Kendall Fuller.
One week later, Young was at it again against the Cowboys when he harassed Andy Dalton on a 4th-and-1, which forced Dalton to throw an off-target pass to tight end Dalton Schultz. Young's stats (19 tackles and 2.5 sacks) might not stand out, but his influence extends beyond the box score.
"The unselfishness for him to do some things, game-wise, for him to free up his teammate and things like that," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said on Young's impact. "I think he's impactful in the run game. I think he's a really good football player. I just want him to continue to be able to do what he does."
Young, who has rushed opposing passers on 134 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, has 14 total pressures, which accounts for sacks, quarterback hits and hurries. He has the best overall and pass rush grade among Washington's edge defenders, and his run defense grade is second only to Montez Sweat.
Del Rio said Young has had multiple games where Jonathan Allen was the primary beneficiary, but it's clear the entire defense is better because of his presence, which is what Rivera envisioned when Washington drafted him No. 2 overall.
"This kid has everything," right tackle Morgan Moses said Tuesday. "Not even just the physical nature of a football player, but the mental aspect of the game. He gets it; he understands that he's not going to get a sack every play, but he understands if the offensive line is sliding to him, it creates opportunities for everybody else."
4. Washington has a top 5 defense.
Del Rio has a history of turning around lackluster defenses in his coaching career. He turned the Carolina Panthers' last-ranked total defense into the second-best unit in 2002, and then he took the Denver Broncos from 20th to second in 2012.
Washington's defense is still improving, but as of Week 8, it is fourth in total yards allowed as well as first in passing defense, allowing 185.9 yards per game.
"We're building confidence because of the way we're working at it," Del Rio said. "To me, when a group of men come in every day with great energy and a great focus and desire to improve and go out and put in the work, I think they should expect to improve. We are improving. As a football team that's something that we are doing. We're practicing well. Now, it's beginning to carry over into the game and we're playing better."
After allowing 556 combined passing yards from Carson Wentz and Kyler Murray, Washington has held four teams to fewer than 200 yards through the air. The unit's best performance came against the Cowboys when it limited Dalton to 75 yards on nine completions. Ben DiNucci, who replaced Dalton after he left the game with a concussion, could only muster 39 yards.
While the secondary, led by Fuller's four interceptions, has been solid, there are still some areas where the defense can improve overall. The rushing defense, which allows 123.3 yards per game, ranks 17th in the NFL and gives up an average of 4.2 yards per attempt. Washington is fifth in total sacks with 22, but there was little production between its eight-sack game against the Eagles in Week 1 and the six sacks it grabbed against the Cowboys.
Both are areas Del Rio will want to hone in on before Washington resumes play against the Giants on Nov. 8, and the evaluation process has already begun.
"I think you just have a chance to go a little deeper, a little deeper dive into things," he said. "It'll be much like what we do [when] adjusting in the game. We don't wait until halftime to do it. We're not waiting...until we get to the bye week to look at ourselves and reflect and think about mapping out where we want to go and what we want to improve and how we can stress on those things."
5. The players have bought into Ron Rivera's team-first culture.
Rivera has tried to build a new culture in Washington that is centered around the team rather than individual players. That’s why he put the word “team” on the backs of every player’s jersey at the start of training camp.
The team has developed a closeness, Moses said, especially over the past three weeks. He doesn't see any selfish players on Washington's roster; instead, they are all working towards improving together. Because of that, Moses, who has been with Washington since 2014, feels a different atmosphere within the Inova Sports Performance Center. That's why despite starting the season 2-5, the players are focused on getting ready for the next game and making a run at a potential postseason appearance.
"I think that's the key," Moses said. "When you have star players...that are not arguing about, 'Hey, I didn't get this catch, I didn't get this many catches, I didn't get this many touches,' but just operating for what's best for the betterment of the team, I think the culture starts to change, because it becomes not a 'me, me' team, but just team-first."