Antonio Gibson, J.D. McKissic can provide a jolt for Washington offense

ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson took the handoff, pressed the hole, cut wide and then back upfield and plowed into an Arizona Cardinals defender, pushing forward for a touchdown in last Sunday's 30-15 loss. Earlier, it was running back J.D. McKissic rushing through a crease for 13 yards, followed two plays later by an 11-yard gain.

They weren't eye-popping runs. But as Washington prepares for Week 3 at the Cleveland Browns on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), they served as reminders: The team needs to get the ball to its backs more often.

"We saw how dynamic those guys are when we hand the ball off to them," Washington coach Ron Rivera said. "It does tell you if we can get the ball to them in space, they can be pretty good."

As Washington looks to generate more offense -- and it needs a spark -- Gibson and McKissic could become stronger options, whether as runners or receivers. The surprising part through two games has been their lack of targets, only nine combined for four receptions. McKissic, signed as a third-down back, has one catch (and 51 yards rushing on 11 carries).

In Week 1, the Philadelphia Eagles often countered the two-running-back look with three cornerbacks, lessening the chance for Washington to create a mismatch against linebackers to feature the backs. In Week 2, Rivera said Washington often kept the backs in to help with protection and they would release as safety valves. Gibson caught one pass for minus-3 yards; McKissic wasn't targeted.

Washington's offense will endure growing pains all season. It's an inexperienced group as seven full-time starters have a combined 50 NFL starts. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins (nine starts) ranks last in the NFL in Total QBR and 32nd out of 34 in completion percentage. They have a wide receiver capable of consistently hurting teams -- Terry McLaurin -- but they need more.

Enter the backs.

Cleveland allowed nine receptions to running backs in a Week 2 win against the Cincinnati Bengals. In Week 1, facing a more explosive downfield attack by the Baltimore Ravens, the Browns allowed one catch by a running back.

"We'd like them to be more in the passing game," Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner said of the backs.

While the coaches say they want to get the ball to their rushers more, they also know plans change every week based on the defense. Washington also has Peyton Barber, who has 18 carries in two games for only 30 yards in a mostly short-yardage role.

It's Gibson and McKissic who offer the most potential for bigger plays. With McKissic, it'll be about more targets. With Gibson, it's about experience. The rookie was hurt by the absence of preseason games, which would have given him a chance to ease his transition from mostly playing wideout in college at Memphis.

Gibson has had to learn multiple roles because of how Washington wants to use him, and that will take time.

"You just want to see him play like he's just out there playing ball," Turner said, "instead of just overthinking it or being too reactionary because he's thinking: 'Hey, I'm out here playing in the NFL.' That's what you're seeing from him, and I think that's what happens a lot of the time with these young guys."

In the opener, Gibson carried the ball nine times for 36 yards. Last week, he rushed 13 times for 55 yards. And he learned lessons that, in a typical summer, would have taken place in preseason games.

"I had to be patient, but I had to hit it hard right away, so I had time to be patient at the line to see what I need to see," Gibson said.

Getting more carries helped him get a better feel for how patient he had to be on certain runs. Or to see how the linebackers were flowing on other runs. He's also getting used to running with a lower pad level. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Gibson has good lower-body strength. During training camp, Gibson said defensive players constantly told him to lower his pads because he was running too upright. He'd remind himself daily to heed their advice.

"That's definitely something I had to work on, from running up high to trying to get through the line," he said.

That part remains a work in progress: Gibson was stuffed for a 1-yard loss on a run Sunday in part because he was too upright. However, he made strides: He had 4 yards after first contact in the opener; he had 29 in Week 2, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"You can see him be more decisive with his cuts," Turner said. "He made a guy miss and he got upfield, whereas in the first game he made a guy miss and then looked for the next guy to make him miss instead of just picking up that three, four yards. ... Hopefully, this next week will be even another step as he gets comfortable playing."

The more he does, the more he and McKissic can give the offense what it needs: a jolt.