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Running back utilization in the Commanders opening victory and more

What I got wrong and what we got right

NFL: SEP 11 Jaguars at Commanders Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This article is part act of contrition and part celebration of an auspicious start to a new era of Washington football. Really, I am just making good on a wager I lost.

Here is how it started:

Jonathan Williams recorded one offensive snap in the season opener against the Jaguars and didn’t touch the ball. Meanwhile Antonio Gibson led the team in rushing and receiving. I am now here to tell you how I got that prediction so wrong. While I’m at it, I’ll tell you some other predictions I seem to have got wrong, some I got right and why all of that inspires hope for the rest of the Commanders’ season.

How We Got Here

First, let’s start with the facts.

In 2021, the Washington Football Team compensated for the loss of their starting quarterback in the opening game by leaning on a run-heavy offense, featuring Antonio Gibson in the lead back role. The offense as a whole made 550 pass attempts to 477 rushing for a 1.15 pass/run ratio. Washington had the 9th most run-oriented offense in the NFL, ranking just below Baltimore in Pass/Run ratio (1.18). The most pass-oriented offense was Tampa (R/P ratio 1.90), and 7 NFL teams had Run/Pass ratios greater than 1.5.

Antonio Gibson led the team in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage in 2021, racking up 1,037 yards on 258 rushing attempts and 294 yards on 52 passing targets. He ranked ranked 6th in the NFL in rushing yards; his 7 rushing touchdowns ranked 7th; and he was the 8th leading back in total yards from scrimmage. The one blemish on his stellar 2021 campaign was that he led running backs in total fumbles, although his fumble rate was only the 5th worst. Relative to production, his fumbling rate was better than around a third of major contributing backs, but people tend to focus on total stats, not rates or adjusted rates.

During the offseason, some of us on Hogs Haven speculated that Gibson and the team would benefit from a shift to a flex-weapon/wide-back roll to better utilize his skillset and perhaps cut down on the fumbles. To do that, the team would have to find another back to take over early downs and between-the-tackle rushing attempts. The first hint that we might be on to something came in the lead up to the draft, when the spent a significant proportion of its Top-30 prospect visits on running backs. And sure enough, the Commanders selected RB Brian Robinson in the third round of April’s draft. Robinson earned a reputation at Alabama for his downhill running style and great ball security.

If there was any doubt about the changing of the guard (excuse the expression) at running back, it seemed to be dispelled in the first preseason game at Carolina, when Gibson was benched after fumbling on the second drive and didn’t see the field again with the starters. Robinson took the lead back snaps with the starters for the remainder of the Carolina game and the next week in Kansas City. Gibson was featured with the ones primarily in a receiving role for the rest of the preseason.

Running back wasn’t the only position to receive an overhaul this offseason. The Commanders traded for Carson Wentz and invested heavily in weapons for their new starter by drafting WR Jahan Dotson in the first round of April’s draft, signing Terry McLaurin to a $70M three year extension, in addition to drafting Robinson in the 3rd round.

Putting these pieces together, I inferred that:

1. The Commanders would feature Brian Robinson as lead back on early downs, with Gibson featured more as a receiver, and a higher proportion of outside runs on his rushing carries.

2. With a strong-armed QB at the helm, the Commanders’ offense would be more pass-heavy in 2022, featuring heavy reliance on short and intermediate routes by the trio of starting wide receivers, and supporting contributions by tight ends Logan Thomas and receiving backs Gibson and McKissic.

Essentially, I was expecting Scott Turner to put his spin on the Air Coryell offense, which is based on the principle that a strong inside running game sets up the passing game to stretch field.

This plan was dealt a blow two weeks before the season opener, when Brian Robinson was shot in a carjacking attempt. Backup running back Jonathan Williams beat out resurgent second-year player Jaret Patterson to earn the third running back spot when the final 53-man roster was announced, and Robinson was placed on the Reserve/NFI list, allowing him to come back after 4 games.

In the aftermath of Robison’s shooting, when asked about the uncertainty regarding his status for the season, Ron Rivera commented to the media that Williams “is very similar in style” to Robinson. I took the bait and inferred that Williams would get the early down ground-and-pound carries until Robinson was activated off the NFI list. I couldn’t see any other way to reconcile keeping an older, slowish RB, with minimal career production on the roster in place of Jaret Patterson, who flashed in the preseason.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Washington Commanders Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

What I Got Wrong

What I hadn’t anticipated was how fundamentally different Washington’s offense would be in the season opener compared to what we have seen previously. The new look offense that Scott Turner unveiled against Jacksonville featured less of the inside running game than I had expected based on last season and what we saw from the first unit in preseason.

The subject of my wager with KS4GM was running back utilization on early downs. In total Washington had 17 rushing attempts on first or second down. Obviously, I got the part about Williams getting the bulk of those carries wrong because he didn’t get a single touch. I had to check the stats sheet to see if he actually suited up. He did, and took one snap on offense and 12 on special teams.

My prediction that Williams would get the bulk of early down carries was as much a prediction that Antonio Gibson would not. I also got that completely wrong. Gibson got 12 of the 17 (70%) early-down rushing attempts, making him by far the most utilized RB in those situations. J.D. McKissic and Curtis Samuel each had two early-down rushing attempts and Jahan Dotson had one ill-fated reverse that lost 10 yards on 1st and 10.

A corollary of my prediction was that Gibson would not see much use rushing between the tackles and, instead, would be used more on outside runs. That was also completely misguided. Nine of Gibson’s 12 early-down rushing attempts were between the tackles.

I suppose that, if Ron Rivera actually ever did have concerns about Gibson’s ball security, he got over them by Sunday afternoon.

Going somewhat beyond my wager with KS4GM, I was also surprised at the extent to which the emphasis of the offense moved toward the passing game, and by the form that that took. I would like to point out that I was not alone in underestimating the extent of the shift from running to passing. By pure coincidence, I included a poll question on expected pass/run balance in my article on fumbling last week. This is what the Hogs Haven comment board thought on the topic:

Contrary to majority opinion, the Commanders threw 41 passes to just 28 runs on Sunday, for a pass/run ratio of 1.46, about equal to that of the 8th most pass-oriented offense in 2021. Only 17% of Hogs Haven commenters thought the offense would be that pass-heavy.

The other thing that I did not anticipate is how heavily oriented toward the dual-threat weapons the offense would be. Antonio Gibson was not only the team’s leading rusher with 58 yards on 14 carries, he was also the leading receiver with 72 yards on 8 targets, and the leading player from scrimmage with 130 total yards. In addition to Gibson, WR Curtis Samuel and J.D. McKissic also contributed significant dual purpose yardage (no, Jahan Dotson does not deserve to be included in the dual-threat category after his single attempted reverse for -10 yards).

The three dual threat weapons together accounted for 60% of Washington’s total yardage. Gibson, alone, accounted for 34%. By comparison, the two wide receivers playing traditional roles (McLaurin, Dotson), only contributed 23% of the Commanders’ total yardage. Some might complain that I have stacked the deck against the WRs by excluding Samuel from their total. Counting Samuel’s receiving yardage, receptions by wide receivers still only accounted for 37% of the Commanders’ total yardage.

In summary, the reason that I got my prediction so wrong is that I thought Scott Turner would stick with the basics of an Air Coryell offense, and replace his injured power running back with the other back on the roster with a similar running style. It never occurred to me that he would move so far from the traditional tenets of a power rushing game setting up deep passing to wide receivers.

What I Got Right

At the end of the 2021 season, I predicted that Antonio Gibson would be moved to a flex weapon role to get more use out of his skills in the passing game and running in space. In 2021, Gibson had 52 pass targets to 258 rush attempts, or 0.20 targets per rushing attempt. On Sunday, he had 8 targets to 14 carries, or 0.57 targets per rushing attempt. If the first game is any indication of what we will see this season, his utilization in the passing game will increase by nearly three times. His role appears to have switched.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Washington Commanders Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Some Other Things I Got Wrong and Right

A few days before the season opener, I published my Bold Predictions for the Commanders’ season. While it is just one game, the Commanders’ debut performance provided some clues about which ones I might get right and wrong. I would now like to review my predictions in light of what we learned on Sunday.

1. Brian Robinson will be the Commanders’ leading rusher – Still possible.

2. Brian Robinson will be Commanders’ ROY – Possible, but if I had it to do over I’d pick Dotson. Two TDs on three receptions was one hell of a way to start an NFL career. The best part is, he didn’t even realize he’d have to talk to the media after the game and the PR guys had to find him in the parking lot.

Perhaps I should have picked Robinson for Comeback Player of the Year.

3. First-round pick, Jahan Dotson will exceed expectations – Art Monk and Randy Moss also had two receiving TDs in their first NFL games. I’m claiming this one as an early win.

4. Terry McLaurin will exceed 1,400 receiving yards – About that, after one game he is on pace for 986 receiving yards on the season. If the offense we saw on Sunday is any indication, he will have an uphill battle to fight all the other receiving weapons for a greater share of the targets. This one is getting off to a shaky start, but I still have confidence in Terry’s ability to emerge as Carson’s preferred target.

5. Cole Turner will have a big rookie season – Still possible, but first he’ll have to get on the field.

6. Injuries will take a toll – I hate how well this one is traveling so far. It was too predictable. Jonathan Allen appears to have come out OK, but Phidarian Mathis was injured and is out for the season. In my Bold Predictions article, I focused on my concerns about the lack of depth at LB and CB. With Mathis out, interior DL is now almost as bad. At least LB and CB got through the first game unscathed. Fingers crossed.

7. Tight ends and pass catching backs will continue to shred the defense. So far so good. Evan Engram (4 receptions, 28 yards) and the Jaguars running backs (3 receptions, 21 yards) had relatively quiet afternoons. My particular area of concern has been the performance of our linebackers in coverage. I am pleased to tell you that both Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis achieved shutdown LB status on the afternoon, as neither was targeted by a single pass. The secondary also held up well. But Jacksonville might not be the best test of our coverage unit.

8. Quarterback controversy will become a thing – If Carson Wentz continues to throw 2 interceptions a game, it won’t take long, unless he is able to also keep throwing 4 TDs per outing. He did enough to silence some of his doubters… for now. His 4 TDs on Sunday matched his career best performances, which he achieved 4 times in his near-MVP 2017 season. He has thrown 2 interceptions in a game on several occasions, but has only ever thrown 3 in a game twice.

9. CB Tariq Castro-Fields will surprise people – Could still happen.

10. Season record: 7-10. Sunday’s performance gave me hope that I got this one wrong. We didn’t see the gaffes, poor communication and apparent lack of preparation that marked the early parts of the 2020 and 2021 seasons. While the Commanders did allow the Jaguars to mount a comeback in the second half, they also managed to do something we haven’t seen enough of. They found a way to win rather than finding a way to lose. I will feel even better about getting this one wrong when they beat a team that wasn’t the worst team in football for the last two seasons in a row.

11. The Commanders will be 1-4 at Week 5. I’m not feeling it after the opening day performance, but I suppose there is still time for old habits to return, or injuries to strike. I hope not.

12. Chase Young’s return will be anticlimactic – Incomplete.

13. Jack Del Rio will be fired by the end of January. The defense didn’t stand out in a bad way on Sunday. Second-year safety Darrick Forrest has developed well in Del Rio’s system, and the interior defensive line appears to be back to usual form, if they can withstand the loss of Mathis from the rotation. Trevor Lawrence experienced a fair amount of pressure throughout the game. On the other hand, the last time Jacksonville had more than 382 yds and 21 pts was 2021 Week 6. Del Rio did nothing to put his career longevity in Washington in jeopardy on Sunday, but it is a long season.

Closing Thoughts

Well there you have it. The Commanders’ debut performance with a new look offense, led by Carson Wentz and starring flex-weapon Antonio Gibson was much better than I expected. I will be more than happy for them to silence Wentz’s doubters and prove all of my gloomier predictions wrong.

HTTC!

Still doesn’t sound right.


Poll

Which Commander will have the most receiving yards in 2022?

This poll is closed

  • 80%
    Commandante McLaurin
    (377 votes)
  • 7%
    Leftenant Dotson
    (35 votes)
  • 6%
    Strike Leader Samuel
    (30 votes)
  • 5%
    Generalisimo Gibson
    (27 votes)
469 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which Commander will have the most total yards from scrimmage in 2022?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Terry McLaurin
    (46 votes)
  • 0%
    Jahan Dotson
    (3 votes)
  • 11%
    Curtis Samuel
    (51 votes)
  • 74%
    Antonio Gibson
    (323 votes)
  • 2%
    Brian "Rear Admiral" Robinson
    (9 votes)
432 votes total Vote Now