In the spring of 2022, pre-draft scouting reports on running back Brian Robinson Jr. focused nearly exclusively on his bruising running style. Analysts often compared him to a piece of heavy-duty machinery, such as a “bulldozer” (multiple people), a “road-grader” (The Athletic) and an “agile tank” ( Few discussed his ability as a pass-catcher.

As a redshirt senior at Alabama in 2021, Robinson was a bell cow who also caught 35 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns. But he didn’t have elite speed or quickness, so receiving didn’t seem like it would be a big part of his game in the pros., one of the only outlets to mention pass-catching in Robinson’s scouting report, made a glancing reference in the section on his weaknesses: “Hands are likely to disappoint.”

Two years later, Robinson is one of the most productive receiving backs in the NFL. Of those with at least 15 targets, he ranks in the top 10 in a slew of receiving categories, including first in yards per reception (12.8), receptions for 20 or more yards (six) and total expected points added per reception (13.9). Robinson more than complements teammate Antonio Gibson, who played receiver in college, and he had a career day in Seattle with six catches for 119 yards, including a 48-yarder and a 51-yard touchdown.

“Probably so,” Robinson said when asked if teams overlooked his pass-catching ability. “But how could you overlook it when I caught for [296] yards in one season? [People] evaluate what [they] want to evaluate. I’m going to continue to show that I can catch the ball, and I can catch the ball very well.”

The most important thing for Washington (4-6) as its season slips away is the development of quarterback Sam Howell. Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy loves throwing the ball, which puts a lot on Howell, who’s trying to take fewer sacks by speeding up his internal clock and getting to check downs more quickly. The check down is often Robinson or Gibson, and the two running backs will probably be especially important Sunday against the New York Giants (2-8), who beat Washington in Week 7 because Howell struggled to handle a historic wave of blitzes.

Wanted: Game-changing plays from the Commanders’ DTs

This production was expected for Gibson, not for Robinson. One of the keys with Robinson is his ability to produce within the structure of the offense. Bieniemy doesn’t treat the second-year back like a star, rarely designing pass plays for him like San Francisco might for do-it-all back Christian McCaffrey. But when Howell needs a check down, Robinson gets open. He’s shown dependability, feel and explosiveness as a receiver and excelled at turning check downs into first downs. He’s earned Howell’s trust.

“B-Rob is not a guy who’s known for catching the ball out of the backfield … but he does a really good job as far as check downs and scramble-drill-type stuff,” Howell said. “He has a good feel for the game. He’s just a smart football player, and he tells me all the time, ‘If something breaks down, come find me.’ That just makes me feel comfortable as a quarterback, knowing that I always have someone I can dump the ball down to. In the Seattle game, he probably told me five times before the game, ‘If the play breaks down, come find me. I’ll always be open.’ And it just so happened that it worked out that way.”

Robinson’s rookie year, Washington rarely used him in the passing game, though on one of his 12 targets, he still highlighted his power by taking a swing pass and trucking Atlanta corner Darren Hall for a 14-yard touchdown.

This year in training camp, Bieniemy installed his pass-heavy West Coast scheme and Robinson flashed better hands and route-running than even teammates expected. He had several toe-tap grabs, and running backs coach Randy Jordan said he wasn’t surprised; he’d seen the potential on tape at Alabama.

“Slept on,” Gibson said of Robinson’s receiving ability. “He had an amazing showcase of catching the ball, and I mean, like, amazing.”

The pressure is on the Commanders to figure out pass rush

Immediately, it became clear Bieniemy wasn’t going to let Robinson ease into a game with double-digit carries in the first half, as he had last season. Bieniemy, trying to put up points, called for Howell to throw a lot, so Robinson had to help keep the offense on schedule as a pass-catcher. The first two games encapsulated his new role: In Week 1, he turned a check down into a touchdown, and Week 2, he broke two screens for big gains.

Early on, Washington had clear roles for Robinson (mostly early downs, mostly run plays) and Gibson (mostly late downs, mostly passes). But over time, Robinson’s growth as a receiver seemed to give defenses pause, making them a little less certain of what was coming when he was in the game. It was second and medium in Atlanta when Bieniemy called a play action screen, and for the second year in a row, Robinson ran over a Falcons defender on the way to the end zone.

Last week in Seattle seemed like the culmination of Robinson’s progress. On second and medium, Howell rolled left, looking for a check down, and Robinson slipped behind the defenders for a 51-yard score. Later, on an oddly similar play, he escaped up the left sideline for 48 more. And in the fourth quarter, Robinson shook a linebacker on an option route and turned second and 10 into a fresh set of downs. The plays were subtle, critical and may have been pivotal if not for another defensive collapse.

It can be hard, Robinson said, to get into a rhythm without getting all those carries early on. But he’s adapting to Bieniemy’s offense and will take whatever touches he can get.

“I just want the ball,” he said. “It don’t matter how you give me the ball, I’m going to do something with it. Kick it to me, punt it to me, throw it to me, hand it to me — I’m going to make a play.”

Svrluga: Rivera still hasn’t shown why he deserves to stay

This week, when the Giants’ coaches handed out scouting reports, the portion on Robinson may have repeated some of the same things that were written about him as a draft prospect. He can, after all, still be a freight train between the tackles. But over the past two seasons, Robinson has proven he’s more than that, too — and teams should underestimate him at their own risk.

Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.

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