The first Cowboys and Football Team game of the year is just about here. To get the inside scoop on what has been going on with the Football Team, we turned to our friends at Hogs Haven.
Blogging The Boys: Over the four-game win streak, the Washington defense has been given up a lot fewer points than earlier in the season. What do you attribute the turnaround to?
Hogs Haven: I think it fundamentally comes down to players understanding better how to play within the defensive scheme and developing more trust in the players around them so that they can stick to their assignment instead of trying to make any open play around them. The biggest problem early in the season were blown coverages and failures to communicate and pass off assignments, which is critical in a primarily zone defense like ours. Although the entire defense looked bad statistically, most of the problems were in the secondary; the failure of the DL to generate pressure and sacks was primarily due to receivers immediately getting open and providing an outlet for their QB. Part of this may have been due to some new players in the secondary, like FS Bobby McCain and CB William Jackson III, but part of it was probably a failure in coaching as well, because good teams have their players ready to play week 1. Nevertheless, with more practice and time in the defense, the defense has started to gel. The same thing happened last year. People forget that last year, our defense was regularly giving up 30+ points in games early in the season. It wasn’t until week 7 or so that the defense really came together and started shutting people down. I hope that the coaching staff can figure out how to get an earlier start on the season next year, but at least now, things are clicking.
In addition to the above, the team also made some specific adjustments that have helped them out. Landon Collins was playing very poorly as a safety, as he’s too big and lacks the acceleration and change-of-direction ability to cover WRs and displayed poor field vision when playing high. He has since been moved to LB and is playing much, much better. Moving Landon to LB also gave more playing time to 2nd year safety Kam Curl, who is probably the best safety on the team. CB William Jackson III was primarily a man cover CB with the Bengals, so I think it took him a period of adjustment to get a feel for the primarily zone coverage we run, but he’s playing much better now that he’s acclimated.
BTB: What’s happening with Taylor Heinicke? How has his game improved this season? And is he in consideration as a long-term solution at QB, or is he just holding down the fort until someone else shows up?
HH: Heinicke has really improved over the course of the season. His biggest weakness is poor arm strength, but he can partially compensate for it with good technique by setting his feet and stepping into his throws. He’s always been pretty good at reading the field and throwing with timing and anticipation and his biggest X-factor is his ability to evade pressure and make plays with his legs. He started out the season playing okay, but more at a good backup level than starter quality. He’s improved his play over the course of the season though, particularly since the bye. A big part of his improvement is due to the improvement of the defense. Early in the season, negative gamescripts forced Heinicke to try to play hero ball to keep the team in the game, which led to lots of risky throws in an attempt to make the big play. Now that our defense is keeping the score manageable, Heinicke is doing a better job of taking what the other team gives him.
In addition, our OC Scott Turner has gradually done a better job of tailoring the offense to Heinicke’s strengths while Heinicke has done a better job of getting comfortable within the system (remember that Heinicke wasn’t even taking 1st team reps in the offseason with Fitzpatrick as the presumed starter). Heinicke has also gradually improved his mechanics by doing a better job of setting his feet and stepping into throws, leading to better accuracy on intermediate and longer passes, though he can be inconsistent with his technique when under pressure.
His future is still an open question and one that can’t be answered until the offseason, when we’ve seen how much he continues to improve and how far he can take us. Right now, I think most fans would be happy maintaining Heinicke as our starting QB next year over reaching on a QB in the draft or trading multiple 1sts for Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers. At the very least, he makes it so that QB is not a desperate need, so we can evaluate our options carefully without giving everything up to get one. That could all change, for better or worse, based on his play in the remaining games though. Also, this upcoming draft class is widely considered a poor QB draft class, so we may be better rolling with Heinicke than anyone we’d get in the draft.
BTB: Who, right now among players that will be active on Sunday versus the Cowboys, is the best player on Washington’s offense and why? Same question about the defense?
HH: The best player on offense is WR Terry McLaurin. However, he’s also the only serious receiving threat, which has led to him being double and triple covered in games, forcing Heinicke to distribute the ball elsewhere. The most productive player (also a very good player) is RB Antonio Gibson. Ever since the bye, OC Scott Turner has shown a real commitment to the run game that has resulted in Washington being one of the most prolific run teams in the NFL. Gibson has been the engine of this new offense and has displayed both the grit and toughness to grind out hard yards down the middle as well as the explosiveness to take any play to the house, like the following play against the Bills:
The best player on defense is DT Jonathan Allen, who was extended last offseason. Allen has emerged as one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in the league. He registered 47 pressures on the inside in 2020 which was just outside the top-10 for the position, but his 83.5 PFF pass-rush grade ranked tied for sixth and 17 percent win rate ranked ninth. In 2021, he’s been even better. This year, Allen has 6.5 sacks, 3rd most for DT in the NFL behind Javon Hargrave and Aaron Donald. What’s most impressive about that figure is the efficiency at which he’s been able to get after the quarterback, as Allen has the fewest pass-rush snaps in the top-five by over 60 snaps. Also, his win rate (20.7 percent) and pass-rush grade (91.4) rank second behind only Aaron Donald.
BTB: What’s the mood among the Washington fanbase? Given the upheaval around the team recently, is making the playoffs the big goal? Do fans believe this team could go on some kind of run in the playoffs?
HH: The fanbase is pretty boisterous and confident at the moment. The team is finally playing like we expected: as a well-coached, tough, physical, run-first team that beats up opponents and finds ways to win games. That’s exciting to see as a fan and reminds us of many great Washington teams of the 80s and 90s. Making the playoffs is absolutely the goal and fans are expecting/hoping for some sort of run in the playoffs. Objectively, I realize teams like the Cardinals, Bucs, and Packers are more likely to be the class of the NFC, but we recently beat one of those teams and there’s no reason we can’t continue to surprise so long as we play at the same level.
BTB: How do you see Sunday playing out and who will win?
HH: It’s always difficult predicting the future. No matter what, I think it will be a tough, hard-fought game that won’t be decided until the end of the 4th quarter. I think a lot will hinge on two things: the ability of the Washington secondary to continue to play smart, assignment-based defense with few busted coverages, and the ability of Taylor Heinicke to play well in the face of an improved Dallas pass rush. I have a bit more confidence in the secondary continuing to play the way they’ve played since the bye, so long as they can stay healthy. I’m a bit more worried about Heinicke with Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory both likely to suit up and Micah Parsons having an All Pro season at both DE and LB. On the one hand, Heinicke is good at evading pressure in the pocket. On the other hand, pressure tends to make him forget his mechanics and throw easy interceptions. My head says Dallas will win something like 20-16 as the defense plays well, but Heinicke struggles with the pass rush. My heart says that score will be reversed, with Heinicke proving the doubters wrong yet again.
Thanks for the knowledge, Hogs Haven.