ASHBURN, Va. — The vision began on draft night, when Washington commanders picked the running back Brian Robinson Jr.. in the third round. They wanted to pair it with Antonio Gibson and form a backfield tandem that could lead a terrific running game, and that could get the team where they wanted to go.
It took a minute, but that vision started to take shape. It’s a big reason the Commanders have won four of their last five games and why they’re optimistic for the rest of the season.
“We can direct the ball,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “We have to commit to it and we have to stick to it. … The biggest thing we need to do now is understand where we are, who we are, and what we can do.
It starts with running the ball, which in turn can set up other aspects of their attack. If the Commanders (5-5) win over the Houston Texans (1-7-1) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), they would have their first winning record this far in the season as the team was 6-5 on November 22, 2018 (they started the 2020 season 1-0 before losing in Week 2).
Three of Washington’s next four games are against teams struggling with the run, starting with the Texans (fourth-worst in yards per rush; worst in total rushing yards allowed) and two against the New York Giants (last in yards per rush allowed; 23rd in rushing yards allowed). The other is against the Atlanta Falcons, who are 11th in yards per carry but 22nd in total rushing yards.
“We didn’t play the run as well as we needed to,” Houston coach Lovie Smith said, “so I don’t think they’ll all of a sudden drop the run and become an 80% pass. So we have to be prepared for it.”
It will be tough to have another game with 49 carries like Washington did in Monday night’s 32-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. After all, it was Washington’s most carries in a game since 2002. And a big key was conversion on third down — the Commanders were 12-for-21 on Monday; 12 of those third downs were four yards or less.
But that’s the style Rivera wanted: a situation similar to what he once had with the Carolina Panthers, with running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Robinson provides power and consistency between tackles. Gibson, who weighs 220 pounds and can run hard, is faster and can create more explosive runs.
“That’s kind of what we were looking at,” Rivera said last month. “You have a guy who is pretty much a hammer who is a very physical runner on the inside. Then you see Antonio using his athleticism, vision, speed and quickness to take that ball and bounce it outside and around the corner.
When Washington won four straight games last season, it was trailed by the running game. However, when the commanders traded for Carson Wentz and receiver drafted Jahan Dotson this offseason, they were hoping for a more dynamic passing attack. But with injuries and offseason starts weakening the line — and overall protection — and with Wentz expected to feel more comfortable on offense, the passing game was inconsistent.
But those same line issues, plus with Robinson out for the first four games after being shot twice in the right leg in an armed robbery attempt, also led to inconsistency in the game. In terms of yards per race, Washington ranks 29th for the season and 26th over the past five weeks. But since Week 6, Washington is second in attempts and seventh in rushing yards.
That’s why Commanders now lead the NFL in possession time. It’s no coincidence that Washington’s defense ranks third in points and sixth in yards since Week 6.
In Washington’s win Monday, the Commanders gained 3 yards or less on 30 carries. Their longest run was only 11 meters. However, only one run by a fullback lost yards.
“Quite dynamic for me. Those 2 and 3 yards looked pretty good,” Rivera said. “That’s the most important thing: what you have to understand is that the only thing you have to do is stick with it.”
Ryan Clark points out that the Texans aren’t good enough defensively to keep up with Taylor Heinicke and the Commanders.
Linemen say these runs help their ability to protect themselves if they are third and short. It also helps later in the game as there is a cumulative toll. Strategist Taylor Heinicke was pressured with just four setbacks in the third and fourth quarters – the third-lowest total of the season in the second half.
“Maybe it was a little exhausting them at the start of the trials in the running game,” tackled the left tackle Charles Leno said. “It’s like the body shots in boxing with the running game.”
Washington’s racing game still needs some cleaning up as some details need to be tweaked. It cost them meters. On a run from Robinson on Monday, which gained four yards on third-and-first, Washington got the first down. But if the proper block had been executed on the inside, it could have resulted in another 15 yards.
This scenario has happened enough to be cause for concern and optimism. If commanders improve in these areas, more yards are available. Otherwise, the inconsistency will hurt in other games.
Right tackle Sam Cosmi, one of their best run-blocking linemen, injured his left thumb on Oct. 2 and is still not 100 percent. He played limited snaps against the Eagles, his first playing action since the injury, but on several runs he managed the defensive tackle Cox Fletcher. veteran guard Trai Turner played better in recent games after suffering a quad injury throughout training camp and early in the season.
“Having guys like that really helps resonate with the running game,” Rivera said.
And the fact that Robinson is more comfortable also helps.
If the little things can be fixed, the next step for Washington will be more explosive races. He ranks 24th with 11 carries for 10+ yards. But if the commanders stay engaged, they’re confident that those big races will come.
Robinson said he was getting better at reading blocks, knowing which gaps to hit and when to be patient.
“I really feel like I’m able to see the pitch better, where I can slow down my pace of play,” Robinson said. “Before, I felt like I was too anxious and too fast when I first came back. Now I can watch a movie and fix the little things and it helps me play a lot better.
It’s hard to just focus on ball management. Against Philadelphia, COs also wanted to keep the Eagles offense off the field. Against other teams, they might want more balance. But to fight for a playoff spot, the running game will be key. They like where they hope it goes.
“We’re a tough bunch,” Leno said of the line. “We are growing…but we still have a lot of room for improvement.”