Antonio Gibson still developing, but making big impact for Washington

As Antonio Gibson sprinted toward the end zone, capping a 23-yard touchdown run, he noticed a Dallas Cowboys defender trailing him. He wasn't going to tackle Gibson, but he was close enough to say hello. So the Washington running back did just that, with a slight wave of the right hand as he was about to cross the goal line.

In reality, he was saying goodbye to the defender. But he also was saying hello to the nation.

It was Gibson's 11th NFL game, but his first on national TV and therefore the first opportunity for a wider viewing audience to watch him play.

He didn't disappoint, rushing for 115 yards and three touchdowns in Washington's 41-16 win. With 645 yards rushing, he ranks eighth in the NFL, although that will change once others play Sunday. Gibson is second behind Dalvin Cook with 11 rushing touchdowns.

The rookie third-round pick who played receiver and some running back at Memphis, has made the desired impact for Washington.

"He's still growing," Washington coach Ron Rivera said. "He's got so much potential and ability. He's a lot of fun to watch. I'm pretty excited about who he's developing into."

When Washington drafted Gibson and moved him to running back -- his agent said every team before the draft viewed him at this position as well -- it was hoping for days like Thursday. He showed big-play ability, with touchdown runs of 23 and 37 yards.

But it's the little plays that have helped, too. In his first six games, 17% of Gibson's runs went for two yards or less. In the past six games, only 8% of his runs have resulted in such gains, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's owed to his vision and improved patience -- allowing blockers to get to their target and create an opening.

"We see growth in many places," Rivera said. "At first he was all over the place; now we're seeing certain elements of his game coming in to focus. The short runs, where he's pressing the hole a little longer and opening up holes and popping through where it's not opened up but he's gaining two or three yards and getting what you can. Those are the things you look for. Or he hits an area and realizes he has to bounce and cut it back."

Gibson said his last run, a 37-yarder for a touchdown, was an example of that growth. The alignment of the receivers, plus Dallas' man-to-man coverage provided clues. He started right, pressed the hole enough and quickly veered back to the middle through a large opening.

"Before the play started I knew I was hitting the A gap," he said. "After that it was just running."

Play design has helped Gibson as well. On his first touchdown, a five-yard run, Washington running back J.D. McKissic, aligned to the right, ran behind Gibson as if he would get the ball on a reverse. That caused the linebackers to hesitate, but more importantly it brought the safety inside. And when Gibson ran around the end, the safety couldn't catch him.

With McKissic on the field Thursday, Gibson gained 81 yards on 13 carries, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the past five weeks, Gibson has averaged 6.05 yards when McKissic is on the field. Often McKissic carries out a fake to help.

"He's very capable of breaking it," Gibson said of McKissic. "So when he gets on those fakes, he pulls a lot of [defenders] and that opens it up for me and the linemen are doing a good job. That makes it easier on everybody."

On his 23-yard run, Gibson was to the left of quarterback Alex Smith in a pistol formation. Smith motioned him to the other side and that brought the safety to that side closer to the line. It also left a gap through the left side when the other safety backpedaled at the snap and the linebackers attacked a gap inside. Gibson pressed the hole, then bounced through the opening. Design and talent was tough to beat.

"He's very special," receiver Terry McLaurin said. "I don't think he knows how good he can be. He's a very hard worker; doesn't say much. Our line is giving him time to make cuts, and when he hits them you see that 4.3 speed. We need that explosiveness out of our backfield."

Gibson will continue to play a big role for Washington, which means there will be more chances to wave goodbye to defenders. Gibson said at Memphis, "Usually it was the peace sign, but today it was the wave."

The first time Gibson said he played before a national audience occurred a year ago when Memphis beat SMU. In that game, finished with 130 yards receiving, 97 rushing and 159 in returns.

Thursday's numbers didn't quite match that total, but the stage was quite a bit larger, too.

"It's the story of my life," Gibson said. "Every time the spotlight comes on, it seems like God is watching down on me. That SMU game put me on the map to get me to where I am now. It's an amazing feeling."