The Washington Football Team has started to find some success on offense, but Scott Turner made it clear following Wednesday's practice that the unit has "a tremendous challenge" ahead in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"They're a very good team," Turner said of the Steelers, who boast the NFL's third-ranked defense, "and we've got our work cut out for us."
Describing Pittsburgh's defense as stingy would be an understatement; it ranks second against the pass, eighth against the run and 10th on third-downs. On top of that, it leads the league with 41.0 sacks. But Washington has a formula for success against such a tough test, and it involves heavy doses of Antonio Gibson and Terry McLaurin.
The young wide receiver-running back duo had another strong performance on Thanksgiving, as they combined for 228 yards in a 41-16 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Repeating that against the Steelers will be difficult, but trusting two of its best weapons could help Washington carry its momentum into a potential upset over one of the NFL's best teams.
"I think momentum is a very real thing," Turner said. "It's just confidence, guys building confidence and feeling good about themselves and continuing to work and grow. I made the point to you guys for a long time that we want to keep just getting better every week and playing our best football in December and January. That's what we're working and striving to do."
It took some time for Gibson and McLaurin to gain consistent traction. They lead Washington in rushing and receiving, respectively, but it wasn't resulting in wins. Even in the team's Week 1 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, McLaurin finished the game with just 61 yards -- his second-lowest outing of the season -- while Gibson had 36 rushing yards -- his fourth-lowest of the season.
That changed once Washington hosted the Cowboys in Week 7. Gibson rushed for a season-high 128 yards and a touchdown, and McLaurin caught seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown, which helped lift Washington to a 25-3 win. Over the past five games, Gibson and McLaurin have accounted for 51% of Washington's offense, and the team is 3-0 when they combine for at least 55% of its total yardage.
In its past two wins over the Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals, Washington has thrown for a fraction of the yards it did in losses to the New York Giants and Detroit Lions. Still, McLaurin's production has remained steady. He has at least 84 yards in the past five games and is quietly putting together a Pro Bowl-worthy season.
"Nothing really different; it's really just the consistency," Turner said of McLaurin. "It's day in and day out. He has a certain routine he goes by before and after practice. He just leans on that. He trusts his preparation. Everybody makes mistakes. He doesn't let that bother him. There's nothing that pops in my head, it's just really more so the consistency he brings to his approach."
Quarterback Alex Smith, who has been Washington's starting quarterback for the past three weeks, said McLaurin does anything the team asks of him, but his competitiveness is what truly stands out. Smith can see it in McLaurin's eyes on game days, and he's the type of player who should get the ball in must-win situations.
"I think he's grown into really accepting that role and really being kind of the bell cow, the guy that really gets us going outside on the perimeter," Smith said. "I think he's embraced that challenge and really grown into it, which has been great to see."
While Mclaurin has been one of the most consistent players on Washington's roster, most of Gibson's production has come in the past five weeks. Eight of his 11 touchdowns and 62% of his 645 rushing yards have come since the Week 7 game against the Cowboys. He has rushed for at least 90 yards in three games, all of which ended in wins.
Head coach Ron Rivera said after his 115-yard, three touchdown game against the Cowboys that the third-round pick is still growing, so he doesn't know if he can say exactly what Washington has in Gibson. But there have been plenty of great moments to hint that there are some exciting possibilities.
"Is the potential there? Most certainly," Rivera said. "Has he shown us things that get you excited? Absolutely. Again, I'll continue to say this, right now I compare his running style to Arian Foster. I like who the young man can be for us. I like the way he runs the ball. He's got good body lean when he runs. He's got the step to speed to burst and he's got good vision. He's learning to be the kind of runner that we hope he can be for us. His skillset of catching the ball in the backfield we really haven't gotten to, either."
Similar to his relationship with McLaurin, Smith has only worked with Gibson for a short time. Like everyone else, he sees the big-play potential from Gibson, but he has seen more progression from the smaller plays that go unnoticed. Where Gibson used to always try to make a big play, he now does a better job of trusting his reads for gains of three or four yards.
"It's been really nice seeing him more and more comfortable," Smith said. "I think he has such a great knack of finding the end zone. I don't think that's a coincidence at all that he's having so much success in that area as well. I think with that, though, it's a lot of the little things that go into playing the position play in and play out. You're not always going to have the home run. But he is so versatile, and I think [he's] finding those plays that don't show up big on the stat sheet but help the team convert first downs."
Washington has gained at least 325 yards in each of the past six games, and as a result, the team is 3-3 during that span and 4-7 overall with five games left. If it wants to get the upper hand in the NFC East, it will likely need to steal a win against any of the Steelers, San Francisco 49ers or Seattle Seahawks.
Any success Washington has had on offense has largely been because of McLaurin and Gibson. If Washington sticks with that formula, it has a chance to continue.