The 2020 season is here, and we have you covered as the Washington Football Team progresses through its inaugural campaign under head coach Ron Rivera. Stay up to date with "WFT Daily," which comes out every weekday evening.
A dominant defense carried the Washington Football Team to the postseason, but if it wants to upset the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night, its offense will have to produce more than it has the last quarter of the season, when it averaged 17.8 points per game. The Bucs averaged 37.0 points per game during that stretch (all wins).
Offensive coordinator Scott Turner stressed the importance of staying balanced, but that will be difficult to do against a Buccaneers' run defense that is by far the best in the NFL with just 80.6 yards allowed per game. And after the Bucs stuff the run, they pressure the quarterback, ranking fourth in the league with 48.0 sacks. That does not bode well for a Washington offense that is fourth-worst with 50.0 sacks allowed.
"They're really good up front, really good up front," quarterback Alex Smith said. "Then on top of that, they're very active as a group. They present a lot. They bring it all over the place. They give you a lot to prepare for, a ton of looks on the back end. I think any of those 11 guys can come at some point. That kind of volume, obviously, is tough to prepare for."
That said, there should be opportunities for Smith and company to exploit Tampa Bay in the passing game. While the Bucs are sixth in total defense and eighth in scoring defense, they rank 21st with 246.6 yards allowed per game and 29th in opponent completion rate at 69.0%. Only the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans were worse, and they combined for just seven wins.
Smith is currently completing 66.7% of his passes this season -- the second-highest mark of his 16-year career -- and that includes his putrid performance against the San Francisco 49ers, when a calf injury resulted in him missing 11 of his 19 passes. Smith missed the next two games but came out firing Sunday night, going 17-of-22 for 131 yards and two touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Considering all of these factors, Washington's best offensive approach likely includes short, quick passes to methodically move the ball down the field.
Not only will that keep Smith from having to move around or, even worse, take hits, but running back J.D. McKissic should have plenty of room to run after the catch against a linebacker corps that is missing starter Devin White. Smith also has a quality safety blanket Logan Thomas, who ranks third among tight ends with 72 receptions.
"It all works together," Turner said about how Washington will be able to handle pressure. "We've got to get open quickly. The quarterback has to make quick decisions and get the ball out of his hand. We've got to I.D. the pressures correctly, so we get a hat on a hat. We can't have four rushers. If it is a free rusher, we have to have a quick outlet. Some of those protections where the ball has to come out and everybody has to be on the same page.
"It's something that's not just the guys protecting, it's the guys running routes, and then ultimately the quarterback making decisions and getting the ball out of his hands accurately. If they do pressure, a lot of times that gives you the opportunity to make some plays offensively. We've got to take advantage of that, and we've got to make sure we eliminate negative plays. I think if we do those two things, we can be successful."
The opening drive Sunday night provided the ideal blueprint for putting up points while keeping the Bucs' explosive offense off the field.
Washington marched 91 yards down the field in 15 plays, bleeding more than eight minutes of the game clock and converting each of its four third downs. The exclamation point came on 3rd-and-goal, when a pristine pass from Smith landed in the hands of McLaurin in the back-left corner of the end zone.
Smith is a proven winner and elite game manager, which seems like the recipe for success to take down six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and his new team. And while he has been criticized for dinking and dunking down the field in previous games, that might be just what Washington needs to do to win its first playoff game since 2005.
"It will be interesting to see because this is really one of the better defenses we will face," head coach Ron Rivera on Wednesday. "This is going to be a big challenge for us. I'm excited about it because, again, this is all a part of our growth. This is a part of us going forward and being in the position to ask the question: 'Why not us?'"
-- "The leader of our offense": As Smith's mobility waned throughout the second half against the Eagles, it would have been easy to recommend replacing him with Taylor Heinicke. After all, Heinicke was nine years younger and fully healthy, and he completed 12 of his 19 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown.
However, there is a reason Smith is a 16-year veteran and Heinicke has made one NFL start. Smith is a proven winner and 5-1 with Washington this season. What he provides to the offense is invaluable, even if he is not 100%.
"He's the leader of this offense," Turner said. "You look at how the guys look to him, and there's just a sense of confidence when he's on the field. Again, you talk to his decision making -- you look at the way he executed that first drive as well as the two-minute drill at the end of the half, which were our two touchdowns.
"Has he been limited? Yeah, absolutely. But he's doing everything he can to be out there. That brings something to our team. The games he's started this year, obviously, we're 5-1. It's a team effort. Obviously, our defense is playing great and other guys have stepped up. The team feeds on that, the whole team. Seeing him out there and what he's fighting through gives us a little bit of edge and gives confidence that, 'Hey, no matter what happens, we're going to be able to push through this and find a way to win whether it's ugly or pretty or whatever.' They all count the same."
-- "We're not going to baby him": Washington initially signed Taylor Heinicke to the practice squad because of his familiarity with Turner and Rivera, but he rarely saw game action under them. In fact, in his only career NFL start with the Carolina Panthers in 2018, he suffered an elbow injury in the second quarter that landed him on injured reserve. His next appearance came against the Panthers two years later.
"In watching him when he was with us in Carolina, we didn't get to see a lot, so I always wondered if there were certain things that he could do," Rivera said Wednesday. "Being able to see what he did in the Panthers game, I think, really helped me. I will say this: it definitely helped his teammates, especially DE] **[Chase [Young]**. It was impressive. As he told Chase, '[This is] what I do.'"
Smith was a limited participant in practice Wednesday and appears on track to play Saturday night, but Heinicke took the first-team reps Wednesday, and Rivera mentioned the possibility of rotating quarterbacks based on the 36-year-old signal-caller's health. If Heinicke is called upon to play, the coaching staff believes he'll be ready.
"We're not going to baby him. We're not going to play scared. We're going to play to win. Everybody on this team deserves that. He's capable of it. He's got to raise himself up to the challenge, and he will. I've spent a lot of time with him. I've seen him play in preseason games; I've seen him play in practice. I've got a lot of confidence and belief in him."
-- "I'd love to see if we could get all five back": Rivera called the right side of the offensive line, which consists of Brandon Scherff and Morgan Moses, one of the strengths of the team. Opposite them, free agent signings Wes Schweitzer and Cornelius Lucas have "really stepped up" to become consistent starters.
Washington appears to have finally found continuity with the unit, and Rivera wants to keep it that way going forward.
"It's a good group. We've got four of those five right now tied up going forward. I'd love to see if we could get all five back again because it's one less part of the team you'll have to worry about as we start getting off to free agency and the draft way in the future."
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