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Antonio Gibson opened the Washington Football Team's second drive Monday night with a run fans had come to expect from the rookie running back: he used the patience and vision he had developed over the past 12 weeks to scamper for a 13-yard gain.
But there was a problem at the end of the play. As Gibson got up off the ground, he started to limp towards the sideline and did not return for the rest of the game. Washington turned to J.D. McKissic and Peyton Barber, and while the duo combined for only 31 rushing yards, they played critical roles with Barber scoring a one-yard touchdown and McKissic setting career highs in catches (10) and receiving yards (70).
With Gibson (toe) ruled out for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers, will Washington rely on McKissic or Barber to shoulder the load with Gibson unavailable? The answer is likely a little of both, though the attack "will not change much" with their expanded roles, according to offensive coordinator Scott Turner.
"Peyton's been a big part of this team," Turner said Thursday. "Obviously, you've seen him in the role he's played in, but he can do more than that. We'll need him more. We'll need more from J.D. [He's] given a lot, but we'll need him to give some more."
McKissic has proven himself as a valuable asset for Washington's offense. He has career-highs in rushing yards (231) and receiving yards (408) and averages 5.8 yards per touch. Gibson has nearly tripled his rushing yards, but McKissic is nearly as effective with fewer opportunities. Gibson averages 4.7 yards on 141 carries, while McKissic has a 4.2 average with 55 rushing attempts.
"He is a guy in my opinion that...has a lot of room before he hits that ceiling," running backs coach Randy Jordan said of McKissic in training camp. "Again, I cannot emphasize this enough: he fits what we want to do."
What Rivera wanted from the offense was position flexibility, and McKissic is a prime example of that. His 639 scrimmage yards are third on the team behind Gibson and Terry McLaurin, and he has almost as many rush attempts (55) as receptions (56).
It also doesn't hurt that McKissic is one of Alex Smith’s favorite targets. Since Smith took over for an injured Kyle Allen against the New York Giants in Week 9, McKissic has 31 receptions on 45 targets for 225 yards, which is more than receivers Steven Sims Jr. (191), Isaiah Wright (173) and Dontrelle Inman (163) have had all year.
"I love guys that are fire starters," Jordan said. "What that means...is a guy that can strike a match and start a fire anywhere on the field and that is what he does."
Barber does not have eye-popping stats (73 rushes for 196 yards), but those numbers do not show his true impact. In addition to converting a critical 4th-and-1 against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, he also supplied two touchdowns in Washington's 27-17 comeback win.
Barber also had 11 rushes for 57 yards on Thanksgiving against the Dallas Cowboys, but that only slightly helped his rushing average, which is currently 2.7 yards. As long as he does his job, Turner doesn't care about any of that.
"He's a short-yardage and kind of four-minute type back for us," Turner said. "Those yards are hard to come by in those situations. He's done a great job of moving the chains."
Jordan also vouched for Barber's ability in training camp by saying his running style gives the offense a "thump."
"He has good vision, good contact balance," Jordan said. "He shows the ability to catch the ball. I think he gives you depth at the position, which...you always need."
Washington will be hard-pressed to replace Gibson's production on Sunday, but the team is confident in the other running backs on the roster. That's the benefit of investing in the position like it did in the offseason. There's also the possibility that Washington could elevate practice squad running back Javon Leake, who Turner said has the skillset to play in the offense. And in terms of how the carries will be divided up, Jordan said last week it is all about the rhythm of the game.
"It could be Peyton Barber. It could be J.D. McKissic," he said. "Whatever it may be, it just happens to fall that way. I don't go into it thinking: 'OK, alright, here we go. Let's feed them,' or whatever it may be. We just play the next play."
-- Jonathan Allen is a leader on and off the field: Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen was named the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee Thursday morning, and from what head coach Ron Rivera has seen, he is deserving of the honor. On the field, he competes and gives all he has every play. Off the field, he is generous, giving and kind, which were also qualities Payton, Rivera's former teammate, possessed.
"When you look at guys like Jonathan, you know why he's our representative. I know we've had some really good [nominees] here the last couple of years, so I'm just proud of the fact that we have guys who give back to the community."
-- Turner is not surprised by the way Logan Thomas has played: Turner doesn't believe "surprised" is the right word to use when describing what he saw Monday night from Logan Thomas (the tight end finished the game with nine receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown). He saw all the intangibles when evaluating Thomas' film in the offseason, but he didn't have many opportunities to show it while continuing to learn the position. Turner always thought Thomas had the potential to play like he did against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"He might appear to be covered, but [quarterbacks are] going to give him a chance on 50-50 balls because they have faith that he's going to come down with it. There's...some routes that we didn't ask him to do earlier that we think, 'Hey, he can do this because of the speed and separation he's shown on some other things.' I do think we've been able to grow him. We asked him to do some stuff earlier in the year that maybe we didn't quite make the play on. But he's definitely growing."
-- Washington must remain focused against the 49ers: Monday's upset over the Steelers was a monumental win for Washington, but it must now move on and put all its focus on the San Francisco 49ers, who are also fighting to remain in the postseason conversation. To Smith, the talent the 49ers possess is obvious whenever he turns on the tape, despite their numerous injuries. This is a team that went to the Super Bowl last season, he said, and the team has to stay focused in order to get its fourth consecutive win.
"If anyone thinks...you're going to go through the motions with a team like this, you're in for a rude awakening. You turn on the tape and immediately tell how well-coached they are and how much pride they have as a group and how good they're playing. It's another big challenge in a short week going across the country. It's a big challenge for us, and we've certainly got to be on our game and on the details."
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