Improved run game powering Washington Commanders' sudden surge

ASHBURN, Va. -- The vision began on draft night, when the Washington Commanders selected running back Brian Robinson Jr. in the third round. They wanted to pair him with Antonio Gibson and form a backfield tandem that could lead a formidable run game, and that could lead the team where it wanted to go.

It took a minute, but that vision has started to come into focus. It’s a key reason why the Commanders have won four of their last five games and why they’re optimistic about the rest of the season.

“We can run the ball,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “We have to commit to it, and we have to stay with it. ... The biggest thing we have 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 offense. If the Commanders (5-5) win at the Houston Texans (1-7-1) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), they would have their first winning record this deep into the season since the team was 6-5 on Nov. 22, 2018 (they started the 2020 season 1-0 before losing in Week 2).

Three of Washington’s next four games are against teams that struggle against the run, starting with the Texans (fourth-worst in yards per carry; worst in total rushing yards allowed), and two against the New York Giants (last in yards per carry allowed; 23rd in rushing yards allowed). The other is against the Atlanta Falcons, which are 11th in yards per carry but 22nd in total rushing yards.

“We haven’t played the run as well as we need to,” Houston coach Lovie Smith said, “so I don’t think they’ll all of a sudden abandon the run and become 80% pass. So we need to get ready for it.”

It’ll be hard to have another game with 49 carries as Washington did in Monday night's 32-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. After all, that was Washington’s highest number of carries in a game since 2002. And a big key was converting on third downs -- the Commanders were 12-for-21 Monday; 12 of those third downs were for four yards or less.

But this is the style Rivera wanted: A similar situation to what he once had with the Carolina Panthers, with running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Robinson provides the power and consistency between the tackles. Gibson, who is 220 pounds and can run with force, is faster and can create more explosive runs.

“That is kind of what we envisioned,” Rivera said last month. “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.”

When Washington won four in a row last season, it was led by the run game. However, when the Commanders traded for Carson Wentz and drafted receiver Jahan Dotson this offseason, they hoped for a more dynamic passing attack. But with injuries and offseason departures weakening the line -- and the overall protection -- and with Wentz needing to feel more comfortable in the 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 his right leg during an attempted armed robbery, led to run game inconsistency as well. In terms of yards per carry, 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.

It’s why the Commanders now lead the NFL in time of possession. Not so coincidentally, 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 just 11 yards. However, only one run by a back lost any yards.

“Pretty dynamic to me. Those 2 and 3 yarders looked pretty good,” Rivera said. “That’s the big part: The thing that you have to understand is that the one thing that you’ve got to do is stick with it.”

The linemen say these runs help their ability to protect if they’re in third-and-short. It also helps later in the game as there’s a cumulative toll. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke was pressured on only four dropbacks in the third and fourth quarters -- the third-lowest second-half total of the season.

“Maybe it was a little wearing them out early in downs in the run game,” left tackle Charles Leno said. “It’s like body blows in boxing with the run game.”

Washington’s run game still needs cleaning up, as some details need sharpening. It’s cost them yards. On one Robinson run Monday, which gained four yards on third-and-1, Washington got the first down. But had the proper block been executed inside, it could have resulted in another 15 yards.

That scenario has happened enough to be cause for concern and optimism. If the Commanders improve in these areas, more yards are available. If not, the inconsistency will hurt in other games.

Right tackle Sam Cosmi, one of their best run-blocking linemen, suffered a left thumb injury on Oct. 2 and still isn’t 100%. He played limited snaps against the Eagles, his first game action since the injury, but on multiple runs he handled defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Veteran guard Trai Turner has played better the past several games after dealing with a quad injury all of training camp and early in the season.

“Having guys like that out there really does help resonate with the running game,” Rivera said.

And having Robinson get more comfortable helps, too.

If the little things can get fixed, the next step for Washington will be more explosive runs. It ranks 24th with 11 carries for 10-plus yards. But if the Commanders remain committed, they’re confident those big runs will come.

Robinson said he’s getting better at reading the blocks, knowing which gaps to hit and when to be patient.

“I definitely feel I’m able to see the field better, to where I can slow down my game pace,” Robinson said. “Before I felt I was too anxious and fast when I first got back out there. Now I can watch film and correct the small stuff and that helps me play a lot better.”

It’s hard to only focus on running the ball. Against Philadelphia, the Commanders also wanted to keep the Eagles’ offense off the field. Against other teams, they might want more balance. But to contend for a playoff spot, the run game will be key. They like where they hope it’s headed.

“We’re a tough group,” Leno said of the line. “We’re growing ... but we still have a lot of room for improvement.”