In the aftermath of Sunday’s 20-12 loss to the New York Giants, Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera met with Taylor Heinicke to tell the quarterback that he had to do a better job of finishing. Heinicke did “some really good things,” though the coach emphasized that the signal-caller has to improve in the red zone — where the Commanders scored just one touchdown in three tries.
But Rivera also reiterated to Heinicke that he’ll still be the starter over Carson Wentz. He wanted his signal-caller to ignore the outside noise of a possible change.
“As long as I’m open with him and he understands where I’m coming from, we both get the messaging,” Rivera said.
Rivera said Monday that he won’t make a quarterback change for Saturday’s showdown with San Francisco 49ers. But with three games left on the schedule — and with the Commanders’ playoff hopes in danger — practically every decision that Rivera makes down the stretch will be magnified. And the chatter that Rivera could possibly turn back to Wentz will only grow if Heinicke continues to struggle.
Against the Giants, Heinicke threw for 249 yards on 17 of 29 passing for one touchdown. But the 29-year-old fumbled twice — losing both, one of which was recovered for a touchdown.
Asked if he planned on starting Wentz against the 49ers, Rivera said no and said the Commanders would stick with Heinicke because of “what we’re trying to establish” on offense.
“It is something that obviously is talked about, obviously out there,” Rivera said of a possible quarterback switch. “And it is something — to be quite frank — is I do have to think about, at some point.
“But if we can get back on track, if we can play the way we’ve played and do the things that we’ve done, then we’ll stick with where we are.”
For now, one of the Commanders’ priorities when it comes to Heinicke is converting in the red zone. That’s been a problem for Washington even dating back to last season, though the issues have only grown worse since then.
In the eight games since Heinicke took over for Wentz, the Commanders have scored a touchdown inside the 20 only 47.8% of the time — the eighth-lowest percentage in the NFL in that span. And though Washington runs the ball more frequently in that area, Heinicke hasn’t been accurate when asked to throw. According to Pro Football Reference, Heinicke has a completion percentage of 45.2% in the red zone this season — down from last year’s 60.4.
Rivera said he’d like to see Heinicke speed up his decisions once his initial reads are taken away and scan the other side of the field at a faster rate.
“When the space is condensed and it’s reduced, it’s one of those things that you’ve gotta do quickly and get through it quickly,” Rivera said. “A couple times he’s kind of waited a little bit to try and give the guy an opportunity to get to the window or to another window.”
Over the first six games, Wentz’s numbers in the red zone were slightly better. His accuracy, while not great, was at 54%. And the Commanders scored a touchdown 57% of the time, ranking closer to the league average (17th).
The problem, though, is under Wentz — Washington barely got in the red zone, to begin with.
The Commanders’ 14 red-zone drives were tied for 28th before Wenz broke his ring finger in October. Heinicke has since led 23 trips to the area, helping Washington rank 23rd in that span.
In any case, the Commanders find themselves facing an uphill battle to make the postseason. Though they are still technically the seventh seed in the standings, the Commanders cling on to a half-game lead over the 7-7 Detroit Lions and 7-7 Seattle Seahawks.
Washington’s Week 2 loss to the Lions, in particular, looms large. The Lions are one of the hottest teams in football at the moment, having won six of the last seven. And Detroit has an easier schedule than Washington down the stretch — with the Lions facing the 5-9 Carolina Panthers, 3-11 Chicago Bears and 5-8 Green Bay Packers.
The Commanders, by comparison, face the 10-4 49ers, the 6-8 Cleveland Browns and the 10-4 Dallas Cowboys to close the season.
That’s the seventh-hardest schedule remaining based on strength of schedule. The Lions’ remaining strength of schedule ranks 31st. The Seahawks rank 12th — with at Chiefs, Jets and Rams — while the 8-5-1 Giants actually have a harder schedule than Washington.
New York’s strength of schedule ranks fourth as the Giants travel to face 11-3 Minnesota this weekend, host the 4-9-1 Indianapolis Colts the week after and close the year at Philadelphia to take on the 13-1 Eagles.
But analytical models such as FiveThirtyEight and Football Outsiders strongly favor New York to make the postseason and for Washington to miss it. Washington’s defeat over the weekend was costly.
“Everyone’s (ticked off) and I think it’s gonna roll over through the week … and we’re gonna use this as energy to get prepared for a really good team in San Fran,” Heinicke said after Sunday’s loss.
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