Game plans differ by opponent, each play has a progression, and each progression is predicated on the initial read of quarterback Sam Howell. But this season, Rivera also has echoed new coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s goal of achieving offensive balance, a term that has become less about the split between running and passing plays and more about the variety of threats the offense can pose.
“We want to be able to always constantly keep that threat on [opponents] that: ‘Hey, we can run the ball. We can throw the ball. We can throw the ball in play-action. We [can] throw the ball off boot-action. We can throw the ball on a dropback,’ ” Rivera said earlier this season. “But that keeps everything open in terms of, ‘Hey, we can run it, we can run something inside, we can bounce the ball and get something outside.’ ”
Balance creates opportunities, Rivera said. It’s something Washington is still trying to achieve more consistently, to create more chances for all of its playmakers and to keep defenders on their toes.
“We have so many great players, and I think part of this offense and why it’s so good is it spreads the ball around,” Howell said last week. “But at the same time, there’s got to be a good balance of spreading the ball around and using your best players. It’s definitely something that we will continue to try to do a better job of moving forward.”
In their 24-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the Commanders were balanced. They ran 22 times and threw 23 times, keeping McLaurin a focal point from the outset. For the first time in his career, he was targeted six times in the first quarter, catching four passes for 45 yards. Running backs Antonio Gibson and Brian Robinson Jr. each caught a touchdown pass, marking the first time since 2006 that Washington had two running backs record a receiving touchdown in a game.
The Commanders opened with quick game — a forte of Howell’s — to jump-start the offense, and they used play-action on a season-high 18 percent of their plays, including Howell’s three touchdown passes. What’s more, they used two-back sets on 4 percent of their plays (also a season high) and two-tight-end sets on 26 percent of their plays, their second-highest rate of the season.
Gibson’s one-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter included it all. Washington gave every sign of a run play, with tight ends Logan Thomas and John Bates attached to the right side of the line for extra blocking. Howell faked a handoff to Robinson, who was lined up as a fullback, then rolled out and threw a short pass to Gibson, who ran out of the backfield and toward the corner of the end zone for the score.
“We worked on that all week — staying tight to the line of scrimmage, getting the momentum to run and making wide-open passes,” Gibson said. “Easy touchdown.”
Later in the second quarter, Gibson took a handoff nine yards up the middle. Two plays later, Howell found McLaurin for an 18-yard pass off play-action, setting up Curtis Samuel’s seven-yard touchdown catch on an in route.
There was balance. Mostly.
Second-year wide receiver Jahan Dotson played 41 of the team’s 51 snaps but was targeted just once — and the ball slipped through his hands. But, generally, Dotson’s limited output hasn’t been tied to a lack of opportunities. He has received 15.5 percent of the team’s targets, down only slightly from 15.9 percent in the games he played in last season, per TruMedia. But he has had just one explosive reception (16 yards or more), and his targets have averaged just 9.9 air yards, a drop from 15.4 in 2022.
Still, Rivera believes it’s “just a matter of time” until Dotson becomes more of a regular target for Howell.
“As we continue to work and try and distribute the ball to all the players, it’ll happen,” Rivera said Monday. “It’s just one of those things that sometimes guys will be targeted more.”