Usage of Antonio Gibson, Brian Robinson Jr. vs. Packers is what Commanders ‘envisioned’

Usage of Gibson, Robinson vs. GB is what Commanders 'envisioned' originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

When the Washington Commanders went on a four-game winning streak during the middle of the 2021 season, the club did an excellent job of controlling the time of possession and running the football effectively. That formula took the pressure off quarterback Taylor Heinicke, which also helped him deliver in clutch moments when he needed to.

With Heinicke under center for Washington once again on Sunday, the Commanders relied on a similar offensive approach in the second half against Green Bay. Strong running from Antonio Gibson and rookie Brian Robinson Jr. allowed Washington to control the football for roughly 80% of the third quarter and later extend its lead to nine points midway through the final period.

Then, when the Commanders needed Heinicke to deliver, he connected with star wideout Terry McLaurin on a few clutch throws to essentially ice Washington’s 23-21 victory over Green Bay.

After a slow start against the Packers’ defense, Washington’s offensive turnaround on Sunday can largely be attributed to the quality play of its top two running backs. The one-two punch of Gibson and Robinson is something Washington’s head coach has long imagined since Washington selected the latter in April’s draft.

“That’s along the lines of what we’ve always envisioned,” Rivera said Monday. 

The Commanders have 74 offensive snaps against Green Bay and the split between Robinson and Gibson was nearly even (Robinson played 35 snaps, Gibson 29). Pass-catching specialist J.D. McKissic played just 12 snaps.

Robinson, the more physical runner of the two, carried the football 20 times for 73 yards. Gibson, who’s served as Washington’s “change of pace” back since Robinson’s return, carried the ball 10 times for 59 yards. In total, the Commanders ran for a season-high 166 yards and controlled the football for over 37 minutes of the game.

“We ran the ball effectively,” Rivera said. “When you can do that, you can chew the clock and you can possess the ball. It seems to be a pretty good formula.”

That formula works even better when a future Hall of Famer is quarterbacking the other team and forced to stand on the sideline for the majority of the game. Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay ran just 54 offensive plays, 20 snaps fewer than the Commanders’ offense. 

“We did a good job establishing our run game today,” Robinson said postgame. “[Our] defense was playing so well. They stood up for us. We had to repay them. We put up some points to protect the defense and we knew they were going to keep playing hard.”

Rivera’s initial experience having a true running back tandem dates back to his early head coaching years in Carolina. Between Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers had two stout backs to rely on. Shortly after Washington drafted Robinson earlier this year, Rivera specifically mentioned the success Stewart and Williams had together in Carolina as an example of what Gibson and the rookie could become.

Following Sunday’s game, Rivera doubled down on that same idea.

“It goes back to my prior experience having a couple running backs that are a really good tandem,” he said. “You have a guy that’s pretty much a hammer, that is a very physical runner inside. Then you see Antonio use his athleticism, his vision, his speed and quickness to take that ball and bounce it outside and turn the corner. He did that a couple times and it was very impressive. That’s what we envision.”

When re-watching Sunday’s game, there was one other area the Commanders’ running back duo specifically impressed their head coach: as pass-catchers.

It’s widely known that Gibson, who played wide receiver at Memphis, has the skill set to be an effective pass-catcher. Yet over his first two seasons, Gibson played the role of Washington’s lead back while McKissic primarily handled pass-catching duties.

With Robinson now in the fold, Gibson has been utilized more as a pass-catching back. On Sunday, Gibson snagged three receptions for 18 yards, highlighted by an impressive toe-tapping red zone touchdown.

“One of the things that we also got to continue to be aware of is we threw the ball to Antonio four times and three of them were big catches, one of them was for a touchdown,” Rivera said.

Robinson — whose pass-catching ability came as a “pleasant surprise” to Commanders coaches during training camp — also showcased his ability as a receiver on Sunday versus Green Bay. Although he caught just two passes for 13 yards, the rookie made multiple defenders miss before nearly picking up a first down on each play.

Although McKissic didn’t contribute much in Sunday’s game, Rivera still believes the running back will play a significant role in Washington’s offense moving forward.

“Being able to use those guys as a 1-2 punch on first and second down — then you bring J.D. McKissic in and get the ball in his hands, he can be very dynamic as well,” Rivera said. “That’s along the lines of what we’ve always envisioned. We felt if we can have those three complementary backs, you’re 1-2 punch and the guy who handles the passing situations.”

In Gibson, Robinson and McKissic, the Commanders have a trio of running backs in whom Rivera has a ton of confidence. And if Sunday’s game is any indication, the head coach plans to rely on that position group heavily moving forward as Washington continues to try and turn its season around.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up