Where is Antonio Gibson at in his development?

Taking a closer look at the development of Washington RB Antonio Gibson

The development of Washington running back Antonio Gibson was one of the few highlights of the team’s offense last season. The 2020 third-round pick was a receiver in college that Washington opted to convert to running back after just 33 carries in his collegiate career. It may not have been an obvious move necessarily, but Gibson displayed some raw talent in those carries that Washington clearly thought was worth developing. 

Gibson totalled 170 carries for 795 yards and 11 touchdowns in his rookie season, while dealing with an injury down the stretch. Those are very good numbers, but do they tell the whole story of his development and where can he go from here? Let’s take a closer look.

Raw Talent

At the start of the season, it was clear that Gibson had an abundance of raw talent with the ball in his hands. 

This play came in Washington’s second game of the season. Gibson aligns to the right of the quarterback in the shotgun and takes a carry to the left. Right guard Brandon Scherff pulls to the left to kick out the edge defender. However, nobody accounts for the linebacker that gets a nice read on the play. That leaves the linebacker unblocked in the lane that Gibson wants to take. Most backs would get tackled in this situation, but not Gibson. He shows a fantastic jump cut to make the defender miss in the hole before getting back on track. The safety comes down to fill in and Gibson shakes him off with another sharp cut. 

On a play that should have been dead at the line of scrimmage or even for a loss, Gibson’s raw talent enabled him to make multiple defenders miss and pick up about 10 yards on the carry. 

He also displayed an ability to work off-script when the design of the play didn’t go according to plan.

Here, Washington calls a duo scheme designed to generate as many double teams up front as possible. Typically, the running back is taught to read the Mike (middle) linebacker on this type of run. In this case, the Mike quickly loops around the double team from the right guard and right tackle, which should tell Gibson to cut the run back behind the double teams and find a lane that side. Gibson doesn’t do this initially, and perhaps Washington teaches this scheme differently to how I’ve learnt it, but instead he works the other way. He quickly finds he has nowhere to go on that side of the line. However, Gibson then reverts to his raw ability and he opts to cut his run all the way back to the other side of the line, running around almost the entire defense to find open field and pick up a first down before being tackled.

Those two plays were both great examples of Gibson’s raw talent that was on display early in the season, but talent will only go so far on its own. Gibson also showed early in the season that he had plenty to learn if he was to fulfil his talent.

Development

While we saw those flashes of raw talent from Gibson early in the season, we also saw just how raw he was as a running back at times too. There are nuances to playing running back that Gibson hadn’t picked up from experience. A prime example would be patience and pressing the hole. 

On this play, Washington calls for a zone scheme run to the left, with a tight end sifting back across the line to the right side. What can typically happen on these plays with a tight end sifting is the offensive line washes out the defense to one side while the tight end kicks out the edge defender on the back side, leaving a huge cut back lane for the running back. However, the back needs to know how to set that up properly. It requires patience and pressing the run to the front side first, getting the defense to commit to that direction before then cutting it back. 

Gibson, though, doesn’t do that. He makes a good read early. He notices left tackle Geron Christian has been stacked up by the edge defender and that he’ll need to cut his run back. However, there’s a difference between the timing of the read and the timing of the cut. Gibson has time to take a few more steps towards the left side of the line. That will force the defense to commit to that side more and allow his lineman time to wash out more of the defenders. Instead, Gibson makes his cut almost as soon as he secures the hand off on his third step.

To Gibson’s credit, the tight end fails to pick up the linebacker scraping to the edge and leaves the linebacker unblocked in the hole. But had Gibson pressed the run to the left a bit longer, he might have given the tight end more time to pick up the block and create a lane for him to cut into. Alternatively, had Gibson committed more to the front side of the run, he could have allowed Wes Schweitzer to wash out his block more, creating a lane between Schweitzer at right guard and Morgan Moses at right tackle, hitting the run there.

This was something that Gibson improved on as he progressed through the season. That run came in week four against the Ravens. By the time Washington played the Cowboys in week 12, Gibson showed a much greater understanding of patience and pressing his runs.

This is a similar style of run, but not quite the same. Here, Washington runs an inside zone play from the shotgun. There’s no tight end sifting, but they do send J.D. McKissic on a jet sweep fake. Gibson’s aiming point is slightly different, targeted more inside than outside, but the key to look for is how patient he is with pressing his run. On the play against the Ravens, Gibson made his cut on his third step. I’ve paused the play on his third step in this clip to show the difference patience makes. At that point, he can see a linebacker with the potential to scrape back and make a tackle if Gibson cuts too early. So, Gibson wisely takes an extra step or two to press the run to the front side, forcing the linebacker to commit that way. With the linebacker committed to his gap, Gibson can then cut his run back freely into the open field, with the linebacker unable to get back and make a play.

That patience is key for a running back. While urgency is important, if the back makes cuts too early or runs beyond his blockers, he can limit his potential gain. It was clear to see later in the season that Gibson was learning this.

This play is a good example of how improved Gibson’s patience was later in the season compared to early in the year. Against the Panthers in week 16, Washington calls a sweep play to the right, with a tight end and right tackle blocking down inside, allowing the right guard and center to pull to the edge as lead blockers for Gibson. Earlier in the season, Gibson may have just outrun the blockers to the edge and taken what he could have gotten outside. But here, Gibson shows patience. He allows Brandon Scherff to pull around and work up to his block, while following behind Chase Roullier to the edge. Gibson makes a sharp cut behind Roullier, allowing Roullier to pick up the defensive back on the edge. Gibson then cuts back behind Scherff, who takes his defender to the sideline, and bounces his run outside of left tackle Cornelius Lucas, who does well to cut off another defender from the back side. 

Earlier in the season, that run might have been stopped by the defensive back on the edge early on. But because Gibson was more patient and allowed his blockers to do their jobs, Gibson was able to turn the run into a 20-yard pick up. He can still improve his patience going forward, but it’s clear to see that he improved drastically over the course of his rookie season.

Expanded Role

So what is next for Gibson? Washington drafted Gibson in part for his versatility. He was a receiver in college but we rarely saw him play outside or catch many passes as a running back. My guess would be that in his rookie season, Washington wanted Gibson to focus on learning the intricacies of playing the running back position. Given how well he developed over the year, Washington may now feel he’s ready for an expanded role.

Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner is known for moving his weapons around and lining up in all kinds of different formations. In Carolina, he had Christian McCaffrey, a running back that was just as capable at receiver. Turner often shifted McCaffrey outside and let him run routes or used his ability as a receiver to get him the ball in different ways to just being handed the ball on a standard rushing play. In theory, we could see Turner do the same with Gibson this season.

We did see a few examples of Gibson aligning in different spots early last year, but it didn’t continue throughout the season. Here, Gibson aligns to the right of the formation next to tight end Logan Thomas, while fellow running back J.D. McKissic lines up in the backfield. The quarterback then makes a signal and Washington shifts. Thomas motions to the other side of the formation while Gibson shifts slightly further outside. From here, Washington sends Gibson on a shallow cross as part of a mesh concept. Gibson is an easy target for the quarterback and once he makes the catch, he can show off his playmaking ability. He makes a defender miss an open field tackle and bursts down the sideline, picking up a first down on his way to a 16-yard gain.

By allowing Gibson to align as a receiver more often, Washington can give the defense more things to think about. What’s even more fun to think about is the possibility of free agent signing Curtis Samuel aligning in the backfield on a similar type of play instead of McKissic. McKissic has pass protection duties that you wouldn’t want Samuel to have to do, but the ability to shift Gibson outside and Samuel into the backfield will mess with defensive personnel and coverage matchups, giving Washington an advantage.

Allowing Gibson to line up in different spots can also enable Turner to open up his bag of tricks more often.

On this play, Gibson aligns as the inside receiver of a bunch to the left. Just before the ball is snapped, receiver Cam Sims is sent on a jet sweep fake. When the ball is snapped, left guard Wes Schweitzer pulls to the edge and works with Sims as lead blockers. Gibson then follows Sims and Schweitzer, taking the hand-off and working to the edge. Gibson the edge is a nightmare for defenses and he manages to pick up 40 yards on this play before being brought down just short of the end zone.

Overall, if Gibson can stay healthy and continue to develop at the rate he did last season, then Washington has a significant weapon at running back. He’ll need to continue to work on being patient, taking the right tracks and making correct reads, but the difference in his play from the start of last season to the end was significant. An expanded role on top of that development could lead to Gibson becoming a feature piece of the offense going forward.