Commanders Corner: Heinicke huge in homecoming win

How was that for a happy homecoming? The Washington Commanders’ 23-21 victory over Green Bay looked improbable after the first few possessions and only an illegal contact penalty kept the Packers from taking a 21-3 lead in the second quarter.

But just like the homecoming win of 2015 (also a week seven game that saw Washington rally from a double-digit deficit to beat a “Bay” team and improve to 3-4), there was magic in the air at FedEx Field. This time it was the spirit of Super Bowl XVII as the Burgundy and Gold gained 166 yards rushing on 38 carries — the exact numbers Hall of Fame running back John Riggins put up in the win over Miami.

Two weeks ago the Washington Commanders were reeling at 1-4 with four straight losses and having to travel after a short practice week. Now, they find themselves 3-4 on the underbelly of an NFC that has nine teams between 4-3 and 3-4. And just like their playoff push of 2020 was built on arms of backup quarterbacks like Dallas’ Ben DiNucci, they face Sam Ehlinger in week eight. I’m not saying Indianapolis’ new starter is green, but the second year pro from Texas has yet to throw a pass in a regular season game.

Saying Hello to Heinicke: Taylor began the day awkwardly enough, throwing four incompletions over the team’s first three possessions before tossing a pick-six on the fourth drive. But after an “is this 1975?” first half where he completed 7-17 passes for 39 yards, Heinicke completed 13-16 second half passes for 162 yards and a touchdown in the second half. And he was sacked just once for three yards, a far cry from the 23 sacks over the first six games (tied for the most in the NFL). Just what the team needed.

Thunder & Lightning on the Ground: Brian Robinson gained 73 yards on 20 carries while Antonio Gibson added 59 yards on 10 tries. They also combined for five catches that included Gibson’s grab for Washington’s first touchdown of the day. Their running led to the Commanders holding the ball for over 37 minutes.

Pass Catch Fever: Terry McLaurin made five receptions for 73 yards that included a 37-yard touchdown that put Washington ahead for good on the first drive of the third quarter. He also made a pair of catches that helped wind the clock down to under a minute left in regulation. Curtis Samuel made five grabs for 53 yards and on a day where tight end Logan Thomas was inactive and backup Cole Turner left with a concussion, the duo provided clutch catches to move the chains (four of the team’s seven third down conversions).

Third and Sporadic: After starting 0-4 at moving the chains, Washington converted three straight third downs on the drive following Heinicke’s pick-six, wrapping up the possession with a TD pass to Gibson on third and eight from the Green Bay nine. On the afternoon the Commanders converted 7-16 attempts, running twice (Brian Robinson produced on a third and one while getting stopped on a third and three) while passing 14 times. Heinicke completed 7-14 passes for six conversions. Curtis Samuel and Terry McLaurin were each targeted four times, with Samuel making three catches for two conversions (McLaurin moved the chains on both of his grabs). Yardage breakdown: 3-7 on short-yardage, 0-3 on third and 4-to-6 yards needed, 4-6 on long-yardage.

D earns a B+: When you hold Aaron Rodgers and company to 0-6 on third down, you take a bow. Cole Holcomb led the team with nine tackles as they held Rodgers to 47 yards passing in the first half. And if it weren’t for three late penalties they would have kept the Packers out of the end zone in the second half. The lack of sacks wasn’t ideal, but when Rodgers is tossing quick passes (many dropped) those chances are few and far between. And they held off that multilateral play to end the game.

Special Situations: The best offensive play might just be a booming Tress Way punt. For the second straight week a muff led to a Washington recovery and points on the board. Way averaged 48 yards per kick with three of the four falling inside the Green Bay 20. Joey Slye made field goal attempts of 19, 22 and 31 yards while missing a 47-yarder. All six of his kickoffs were touchbacks. Dax Milne had punt returns of three and five yards while Antonio Gibson returned kickoffs for 32, 26 and 20 yards. Washington allowed one 16-yard punt return that set up the Packers’ first touchdown.

Flying Flags: Nine infractions led to seven accepted penalties (two were declined, one because of negative yardage gained by the offense and the other because there was a bigger penalty on that play) for 54 yards. Just one was on offense (pass interference that was declined), five were on the defense (including a roughing the passer declined in favor of a pass interference) and three were on special teams. The big infractions were a pair of holds on special teams (one on a punt another on a kickoff return), plus two illegal hands violations and pass interferences on defense. Defensive pass interference and offensive/special teams holding are tied with eight flags this fall, one behind the nine false starts. The most costly penalty? While there were three in succession on the Packers’ fourth quarter touchdown dive, a hold on a punt in the first quarter set up the Packers’ first possession at Washington’s 42. Green Bay would score seven plays later.

Digesting the Division: Philadelphia (6-0) had a bye so the city could focus on the Phillies advancing to the World Series. The Eagles are the league’s last unbeaten team and own the top seed in the NFC. The New York Giants (6-1) rallied to beat Jacksonville and own the fifth seed while Dallas (5-2) saw Dak Prescott return to the lineup and the Cowboys hold the No. 6 seed. New York’s six wins aren’t only its best start since 2008 (11-1 en route to 12-4) but those six wins already on the books tie for their highest total since 2016. Washington (3-4) is in 11th place of the NFC even though I think they should be above Green Bay due to Sunday’s win (ESPN has the Packers ninth).

The Beast East: A 20-7 composite record can no longer be written off as a fluky hot start for the NFC East, with the AFC East their nearest foe at 17-10. The NFC South (10-18) is the worst of the eight divisions. As for the Inter Conference Competition? NFC 14, AFC 12.

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Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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