Commanders break even with Giants at 20: three takeaways
As the game clock struck all zeroes on Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., nobody knew how to feel — literally.
Both the visiting Washington Commanders (7-5-1) and hosting New York Giants (7-4-1) wandered onto the field, unsure of what to make of the 20-20 tie that had just run its course. 10 minutes of extra overtime football wasn’t enough to separate the two teams vying for one of the last NFC wild card spots.
“It’s kind of weird,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said after the game. “A win or a loss, you know what that is. [With a tie], it’s like, what do you do next?”
Regardless of the uncertainty, the Commanders get their by week this Sunday in preparation for a rematch with the Giants, which the NFL announced was flexed to Sunday Night Football on Dec. 18. That makes learning from this tightly contested contest ever more important: here are the takeaways Rivera and company will be narrowing their focus on ahead of that potentially make-or-break showdown:
The depth at CB is a real issue
Especially with the upcoming four-game stretch that’ll determine Washington’s playoff fate, the issues at cornerback have skyrocketed without the presence of second-year Minnesota alum Benjamin St-Juste. And even with his return imminent, rookie Christian Holmes and fringe practice squad/special teams-centric player Danny Johnson will still be forced into action, leaving a significant drop in production from one side of the field to the other.
The root of this problem is no secret: the Commanders went big in free agency two offseasons ago when they signed William Jackson III from the Bengals on a three-year deal. Just a season and a handful of games into that contract, Washington felt it had no choice but to trade Jackson III — who never truly fit in Jack Del Rio’s defensive scheme as a man-first defender being asked to play primarily zone — to the Steelers.
Since the move, the defense has undeniably been better. However, that aforementioned talent gap still exists, and could untimely come back to haunt the Commanders as it nearly did on Sunday when Giants quarterback Daniel Jones finished with a scorching 80.6-percent completion rate on 31 attempts. This is a bright red flag that the staff now has a chance to shore up for good during a much-needed bye week for a relatively fatigued group.
Heinicke… is just Heinicke
It seems to be the theme of every start by Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke: a rollercoaster ride. But, no matter how you slice it, the undrafted Old Dominion product is the tried and true proof that not all yards are distributed evenly — and his come at the biggest moments. For two and a half quarters, it was clear that the Giants had the inside track to end the Commanders’ three-game win streak… then this happened:
On fourth down, Heinicke pulled a rabbit out of his hat once again to find wide receiver Curtis Samuel occupying a pocket of space to keep the drive alive and eventually connect with rookie Jahan Dotson on a 28-yard score to tie it at 20. Many would argue, though, that Heinicke’s play early in the contest put the team in this situation. This critique is valid — especially given the first-quarter airmail over tight end Logan Thomas’ head for what would’ve been a walk-in touchdown.
Despite this erratic style of play, Rivera understands that in the NFL, it’s hard to do what everybody’s getting paid to do: win. And right now, Heinicke is winning (or tying, in this case), even if Rivera is evaluating the quarterback position — including who starts — on a week-by-week basis. The calls for Week 1 starter and former Eagles and Colts signal-caller Carson Wentz, who the team traded for in March, are loud and clear. The sound of winning (or the chance to win) just drowns them out.
Dotson is (finally) back in the mix
Since Wentz was deactivated and placed on Injured Reserve following Washington’s win over the Bears in Week 6, Heinicke had been unable to thoroughly incorporate Dotson into load distribution. On Sunday, to the delight of the Commanders faithful, that changed. By the end of the first quarter, he eclipsed (2) the number of catches he had in the previous two weeks combined (1).
This is a good sign — not just for Dotson, but for Heinicke and the Washington offense. The North Carolina product finished the day with five catches for 54 yards and a touchdown, good for the third-highest yardage among the team’s receiving corps (105 for Terry McLaurin, 63 for Curtis Samuel). It’s also a good sign for offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who’s having a bounceback season of his own after early rumors that he could be on the hot seat following a lousy offensive season in 2021, and exhibits his creativity to get all playmakers involved.
With all pass-catchers and backs firing on all cylinders, it could be argued that the bye couldn’t have come at a better time. The Commanders now face a four-game stretch to cap the season that features three at FedEx Field with plenty of time to recoup, recover, and reenergize to put their best foot forward each week. And with the way the NFC playoff picture is shaping up, that already razor-thin margin of error for Rivera’s group will only grow thinner.