After more red zone struggles cost the Washington Commanders, Taylor Heinicke couldn't put his finger on what was causing the offense to stall at inopportune times.
“Right after the game, I can’t think of anything,” Heinicke said following a 20-12 loss to the New York Giants that included him fumbling in the red zone.
Coach Ron Rivera has a few thoughts, including how mistakes inside an opponent's 20-yard line have kept his team's offense from looking like itself. He is going to let Heinicke continue as Washington's starting quarterback on Saturday against the San Francisco 49ers but knows the red zone is a significant problem that needs to be fixed to keep playoff hopes alive.
“We’ve got to finish — we truthfully got to finish in the red zone,” Rivera said Monday. “Part of it is we have to not be in situations where you feel you have to throw the ball. Keeping the option of being able to run it, it opens up so much more. More of your playbook is available to you.”
The Commanders went 1 of 3 in the red zone against the Giants and have scored a touchdown just 11 times in 23 trips since Heinicke replaced Carson Wentz as the starter. That 47.8% success rate, if extrapolated over the entire season, would rank fourth-worst in the NFL.
“When you’re down in the red zone, the windows are tighter, there’s not as much space to move so the execution just has to be there that much more,” said receiver Terry McLaurin, whose illegal formation penalty the Commanders disputed pushed them back from the 1 to the 6-yard line late against New York. "If we don’t have negative plays, we make those tough catches or grind for those yards, those touchdowns are gonna be what we need to try and get into the playoffs. Red zone is tough, but we’ve got to try and make it easier on ourselves.”
Not much is easy for Washington now after falling to 7-6-1, with games at San Francisco and home against Cleveland and Dallas left. The Commanders remain in a playoff position but will need to fend off the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks, both 7-7, for the final NFC wild-card spot.
“We’re in a very precarious situation right now,” Rivera said. “We have a half-game lead over a couple of teams, and the key, though, is we got to focus in and take care of them one at a time.”
The running game is still clicking along. Rookie Brian Robinson Jr. ran for 89 yards, and Washington finished with 159 against the Giants, which is usually part of a winning recipe.
Robinson does not think he is back in peak form more than three months after getting shot twice in the right leg during an attempted robbery.
“I’m still making strides,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ll be 100%. I’m sure I’ll let everybody know when I feel like myself again.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The pass rush that keyed the Commanders' 6-1-1 stretch was virtually nonexistent against Daniel Jones. The front four, led by defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne and edge rusher Montez Sweat, did not wreak their usual havoc, and Jones was not sacked once.
“At the end of the day, I’ve got to be better and I’ll be better moving forward,” Allen said.
Cornerback Danny Johnson had two passes defensed on New York's opening drive while filling in again for injured starter Benjamin St-Juste. The coaching staff has rotated Johnson and rookie Christian Holmes in that spot absent any proven depth at the position, but St-Juste's return should help them settle into smaller roles and still contribute.
The rest of the defense struggled in making stops against the Giants, including linebacker Jon Bostic getting juked out of his cleats by Saquon Barkley and safeties Darrick Forrest, Bobby McCain and Kam Curl missing some opportunities in coverage and the tackling department.
St-Juste is a good bet to return Saturday after missing the past three games with an ankle injury. Chase Young could make his season debut more than 13 months after tearing the ACL in his right knee. Offensive lineman Saahdiq Charles is a question mark after landing in concussion protocol last week.
4 — Net yards the Commanders picked up on a first-quarter punt against the Giants from their 34 instead of trying a 51-yard field goal.
Hope for the best as 7 1/2-point underdogs, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, against the 49ers and their league-leading defense. The Commanders really need to beat Cleveland on New Year's Day more than anything to remain in the playoff race.
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