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A Balanced Approach Is Tipping The Scales In Washington's Favor

The Washington Football Team's offense gets ready to run a play against the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 26, 2020. (Sam Hodde/NFL)
The Washington Football Team's offense gets ready to run a play against the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 26, 2020. (Sam Hodde/NFL)

Offensive coordinator Scott Turner stared at the stat sheet after the Washington Football Team's Week 9 game against the New York Giants, and to the first-year play-caller's disappointment, his offense only had nine rushing attempts for 37 yards.

There were a bevy of reasons why the run-pass ratio was so lopsided. The team was down, 20-3, at halftime, fumbled the ball on the first offensive play and muffed a punt that took away a chance for the unit to regain its composure. Regardless, Turner's conclusion was the same: the results were not good enough.

"That's not what we're trying to do," he said following a 23-20 loss to the Giants. "We're trying to be more balanced."

Washington has accomplished that the past two games, and the results have been double-digit victories. The latest example was a 41-16 beatdown of the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, and that's a trend the offense will need to continue as it enters a challenging stretch of opponents.

"You've got to be able to adapt," Turner said Nov. 11. "If you want to be a good offense in this league, which is what we're working to become, you've got to be able to do both."

Prior to Washington's 20-9 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the best example of what the offense could do with proper balance came in Week 7 during the team's first game against the Cowboys. It ran 39 run plays compared to 27 pass plays and put up 397 yards -- while averaging 6.0 yards per play -- in a 25-3 win.

After straying from that against the Giants and Detroit Lions, Washington has corrected its imbalance with a run-pass split of 55-45%. That has helped Washington average 375.7 yards per game in the past three games, which ranks eighth in the NFL and puts it among the likes of the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans -- all of which have top 10 offenses.

"Obviously, the last couple weeks we've been very pass-heavy." Turner said after the 30-27 loss to the Lions. "A lot of that has been circumstantial. We try to get better at all facets. ...We've got to be ready to run the ball if we get into those situations."

Washington's balanced approach has taken some of the responsibility off quarterback Alex Smith. Smith led the NFL in Weeks 9-10 with 715 passing yards, but both of those games resulted in losses. Smith has thrown for 315 yards in the past two games combined, but the offense has been more efficient, averaging 21 first downs and 5.2 yards per play. Washington's Thanksgiving win also improves Smith to 10-0 (since 2015) when throwing for fewer than 200 yards and completing at least 65% of his passes.

That balance has also helped the offense keep the chains moving. Washington converted 53.9% of its third downs against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, which ranked fourth in the NFL for Week 12. Since Week 6, Washington has converted 38 of its 79 third-down attempts, which is second behind the Chiefs.

"The one thing, the biggest positive, is I feel like we're growing as an offense," Turner said. "I feel like we're getting better, I think both collectively and also individually."

On top of that, it has given rookie running back Antonio Gibson more opportunities to flaunt his ability. Gibson, who is the fifth-most efficient running back with a minimum of 88 carries, has rushed for 209 yards the past two weeks thanks to Washington's boost in rushing attempts. That total is third in the NFL behind only Nick Chubb (258) and Derrick Henry (311).

Gibson has fueled a rushing attack that has been utilized more often and has had greater success recently. Since Week 10, Washington is fifth in rushing yards (145.0) and sixth in rushing attempts (32) per game. Gibson’s 115-yard, three touchdown performance against the Cowboys also earned him a nomination for the FedEx Ground Player of the Week.

"I think he's still growing," head coach Ron Rivera said after the Cowboys' game. "He had some really good runs and...popped a couple for touchdowns. He scored three today, actually. The thing about him is he's got so much potential and ability. He's a lot of fun to watch. I'm pretty excited about who he's developing into."

Washington's improved offense is slated to face two tough challenges against the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers, who own the third and sixth-ranked total defenses, respectively. The Steelers only allow 103.4 rushing yards per game, and both teams are some of the stingiest in terms of passing yards.

If Washington sticks to the blueprint it developed over the past two weeks, it will give itself a chance to stay in the NFC East race.

"Without really trying to give away what our mindset and philosophy is, our thing is just we don't want to be predictable," Turner said. "We want to keep defenses off-balance. You've got to be good at both in the NFL. You can't just think: 'I'm going to line up and run the ball.' You can't just drop back and throw it every time. You've got to be good at both, whether it's first down or 2nd-and-10, and you try to avoid as many tendencies as you can."