Taylor Heinicke was playing like someone he's not in losses to the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs. Playing like there's nothing to lose, rather than playing not to lose, is when the quarterback is at his best.
Heinicke's scrambling, which excited fans last year in the playoffs, is a pivotal part of that. It wasn't prevalent against the Saints and Chiefs, but it's starting to make a return.
That was on full display in last Sunday's 24-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers, where Heinicke rushed for a career-high 95 yards on 10 carries. He finished as the team's leading rusher, tallying five or more runs in each of the last four games.
Through seven games, Heinicke has run for 222 yards, fourth most among quarterbacks, trailing only Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts and Daniel Jones. Thus far this season, Washington has called run plays at a 42% rate, slightly above the NFL average of 41%.
However, with that increased rushing total, Heinicke must decide when to be aggressive and when to protect himself. Many of those runs haven't been by design, rather attributed to Heinicke's creativity and elusiveness in the pocket evading rushers.
"I'm not really thinking about that during the game," Heinicke said of when to slide or not. "It's something that just pops up. When I'm in danger, don't want to get hurt, get down before those big guys hit you. When you have room to run, take whatever you can get and get down."
He is not alone in finding that balance, as quarterbacks throughout the NFL are increasingly using their legs week-after-week. Another key component of that learning process for a quarterback revolves around the selectivity of when to run. Leaving the pocket too prematurely or too late can often be the difference between a positive or negative play.
On Sunday at Lambeau Field, Heinicke showed that recognition with his red zone scramble during the third quarter. While the initial ruling of a touchdown was reversed, Heinicke's slide indicated that he was conscious of the defenders' proximity and ability to deliver a big hit.
It was a clear example of when Heinicke needed to be more aware of his situation. Instead of closing Green Bay's lead to a touchdown, Washington faced a fourth-and-goal that it didn't convert.
"Those guys were kind of closing in on me," Heinicke said of the run. "Going back and looking at film, I just ran. I could have run it in, but in the heat of the moment, I thought they were closing in quicker and I wanted to protect myself and get in the end zone at the same time. Unfortunately, that happened. I think throughout the last two, three weeks, I've started to find that line where I can be aggressive, but also stay healthy."
His aggressiveness on the ground provides another element to Washington's offense, which opposing defenses must account for. While offensive coordinator Scott Turner hasn't called many designed runs, defenses must still respect Heinicke's ability to create with his legs when the play breaks down.
That versatility in the run game can potentially open up more opportunities for both Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. It also could open up more situations to employ the run-pass option, an increasing staple in offenses around the league.
On Sunday, Heinicke will look to build on his rushing success against a Denver Broncos defense that ranks eighth in the NFL, surrendering 99.8 average rushing yards per game. However, Denver struggled mightily last week in their 17-14 loss to Cleveland, allowing a season-high 182 yards on the ground.
In Sunday's matchup, the Broncos could potentially be without both Bradley Chubb and Von Miller, two critical members of their front seven. Denver has yielded over 100 yards rushing in three of their last four games.
Meanwhile, Washington ranks 13th in the NFL, averaging 119 yards on the ground per game. Heinicke's elusiveness out of the pocket to keep plays alive has developed into a key component of that ground attack. During his tenure in Washington, Heinicke's fearlessness outside the pocket is a quality that has endeared him to teammates and fans alike.
"When [Taylor] plays to his personality, to me you can see the positives," head coach Ron Rivera said. "You see his ability to move the team, you see his ability to make plays. To me, when you see him play cautious, I think that he has the tendency to make mistakes, he's prone to those things."