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Washington Is Starting To Unlock Antonio Gibson's Full Potential

Running back Antonio Gibson sprints downfield during the Washington Football Team's game against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 4, 2020. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)
Running back Antonio Gibson sprints downfield during the Washington Football Team's game against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 4, 2020. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)

Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson was nominated for NFL Rookie of the Week presented by PepsiZero Sugar. Vote for Gibson, HERE.

As Dwayne Haskins Jr. prepared to take the snap midway through the second quarter Sunday, Antonio Gibson motioned out of the backfield and split out wide to the left.

The 220-pound running back then took off as if he was trying to beat his defender deep, stopped on a dime to create separation and turned back to Haskins, who delivered an on-target throw one yard behind the line of scrimmage. From there, Gibson exploded upfield, made a decisive cut to set up a block and used his blazing speed to pick up 40 yards -- the longest play of his young NFL career.

Four plays later, Gibson plowed into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown.

Gibson has been described as a "Swiss Army knife" and refers to himself as a "weapon," yet during the first three games, the Washington Football Team primarily used him as a traditional running back. That changed Sunday, when Gibson lined up all over the field en route to totaling 128 scrimmage yards and showing just how valuable he can be to this offense.

"I just felt comfortable today," Gibson said after the team's 31-17 defeat. "I feel like each week I'm learning. I feel like every play, I always come back and critique myself. As the season goes on, I am going to continue to learn and put it out there on the field."

The third-round rookie wasted no time letting the Ravens' defense know what it would be up against Sunday afternoon. On the third offensive snap, Gibson got stuck behind tight end Jeremy Sprinkle in the backfield, so he reversed course and bounced the play outside for a 10-yard gain. After taking a vicious hit, Gibson popped up, tossed the ball to the referee and trotted back to the huddle.

The attributes Gibson showcased on that run -- patience, vision, burst and toughness -- were apparent in the first three games, too, when he averaged 4.5 yards per carry, ranked second in the NFL in broken tackles and found the end zone twice.

What fans were not seeing was Gibson's receiving capabilities. Gibson split his time between wide receiver and running back at Memphis, and he had more career receptions (44) than rushing attempts (33). But in his first three NFL games, Gibson received seven targets. The six catches he made went for a total of 16 yards.

In late August, head coach Ron Rivera said Washington had a "whole plan" for Gibson, some of which would not be revealed until the start of the regular season. How the team used Gibson would also depend on his comfort level, which is why he only played 18 snaps in Week 1 before playing an average of 33 snaps the past three games.

"We've put a lot on his plate," Rivera said of Gibson, who was robbed of in-person offseason workouts and preseason games due to COVID-19. "We really have, and he's handled it very well. We'll continue to do that. We'll continue to do things that we're going to try to put him in the best position to help us, try to put him in a position to have success as a football player. There's a lot that we can do with a young man like him."

On Sunday, that meant involving Gibson in the passing game. His first catch came on Washington's second possession, when he lined up in the slot, ran a drag route in front of the linebackers, made a defender miss and cut upfield for a 17-yard pickup. His second reception was a screen pass that he turned into an 18-yard gain, while his third was the 40-yarder that set up Washington's first touchdown. Midway through the third quarter, Gibson tacked on seven more yards as Haskins' checkdown option over the middle.

For the game, Gibson finished with 13 rushes for 46 yards and four catches for 82 more.

"I told him today that he had his preseason schedule out of the way, so it's time to go ball now and show everybody who you are," Haskins said of Gibson, "and he's getting ready to take off and I'm excited for him.

"Watching him in college, the dude was lining up in the slot running fades, so he's definitely somebody who's versatile. Whether we can show him in the backfield, motion him out, have him run a route or bring him out from the receiver spot and bring him in and have him run the ball, he's a very versatile guy who can make some stuff happen for us. I'm just trying to get him to own up his role and take advantage of it."

When Washington released Adrian Peterson during final roster cuts, it confirmed that the team trusted Gibson to make immediate contributions, either as the lead back or as a complement to J.D. McKissic. Three games into the season, it was obvious Gibson would have a significant role.

But based on Gibson's diverse skillset, Rivera knew he was capable of more entering Week 4 against the Ravens. When asked Friday about Gibson's potential to have a breakout game, Rivera said, "I think he's really close."

That performance came Sunday, when Gibson's excellence propelled the offense to new heights.

"I thought we used him part of the way we're going to need to use him to be successful," Rivera said, "and I think part of it is just his tremendous athletic ability as a football player."