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Previewing Saturday’s Tampa Bay-Washington playoff game - Is it Heinicke time?

Carolina Panthers v Washington Football Team Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

I sat down to work on a Keys to the Game article for the upcoming wildcard round playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but I quickly realized that the article was going to be encyclopedic. It was also going to take me two weeks to write, but the game is just three days away; it is scheduled for 8:15 pm this Saturday night.

Clearly, I had to re-think my plan.

I decided to write a series of articles instead. each one focusing on a different aspect of the playoff matchup between the Football Team and the Buccaneers

Click here to read Part 1 of this series - scoring analysis

I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t planning to publish this particular article until Friday or Saturday. Initially, I planned to use the articles between now and then to build a case, but Head Coach Ron Rivera candidly expressed in his Tuesday media session that he was considering “rotating quarterbacks” on Saturday, which moved my agenda up precipitously.

Honestly, the thing that we have to be willing to do and what we really have to think about it whether or not to rotate him in and out with [QB] Taylor [Heinicke]. We have to look at it. There’s nothing you can do about it, that’s the truth of the matter. We’re going to play a very aggressive defense this week. Obviously, it’s something we most certainly have to look at.

Here coach Rivera is saying something that would be an anathema to most NFL coaches — he’s talking about playing two quarterbacks in the same game, and not a meaningless Week 17 game with no impact, but a playoff game!

I think he’s got the right idea.

It was clear watching Alex Smith on the field against the Eagles that his movement is seriously impaired. He was sacked a few times when nearly any experienced veteran quarterback would have been able to move effectively in the pocket to avoid the rush. He clearly can’t run the ball.

If his ability to move effectively hasn’t improved dramatically by Saturday night, then there’s every reason to expect the Tampa Bay defense to game plan effectively against a Washington offense that lacks a number of threats.

Rivera’s forthrightness in offering up the two-quarterback option could, of course, be simple gamesmanship. It was literally the first thing out of his mouth as he answered the first question from a reporter this week. He could simply be trying to give the Buccaneers coaching staff something to worry about and game plan for on a short week.

He might not be the only NFL coach with quarterback health questions to use that strategy:

Rivera was hazy on the details of what it would mean to “rotate” quarterbacks. He threw out the first caveat by saying that it was an idea that had only just been raised by the coaching staff.

It’s just something that came up today. I couldn’t tell you whether you want to do it or don’t want to do it. I couldn’t tell you whether there’s someone that’s done it successfully. I just know this—we’ll address it when it happens.

So, there’s no commitment to the idea, but the staff is open to it. They haven’t developed the plan, but they’re ready to consider it.

Remember that, after the Eagles game, Rivera was asked if he’d considered replacing Alex Smith with Heinicke, and he said he had.

This tells me that, even on Sunday in Philly, Ron was ready to “rotate” quarterbacks if he thought it would help the team get the win.

On Tuesday, Ron stressed that the team can execute the game plan no matter which guy is behind center, saying, “That’s why it’s important, in my opinion, to have quarterbacks that have been in your system and know your system. That’s why we brought Taylor in a few weeks back — because here’s a guy that’s been in the system a few times. That is one of the benefits of having Taylor Heinicke around.”

Coach Rivera is signaling his complete faith in a seamless transition from one guy to the other at any point it’s needed.

I’ll be surprised if it isn’t needed against Tampa Bay on Saturday night.

On Tuesday, I published a scoring analysis that was based on what the two teams have accomplished offensively and defensively during the regular season. What I gleaned from the research I did for that article was that the Washington defense will likely hold Tampa Bay to around 20 points in this game, giving the Football Team a chance to win.

The same analysis, however, suggests that the Alex Smith-led offense will struggle to score enough points to win the game.

I said in that article that there seemed to be a limited number of options:

  1. The special teams or defense would need to score a touchdown
  2. The defense would need to step up and perform at a higher level than they have been since Week 11, limiting Tampa Bay to fewer points
  3. The offense needs to step up its game and score more than my analysis suggests they are likely to

The first option would be great, but it’s simply not realistic to game plan for ST/D scoring. The second option seems unrealistic. The WFT defense has been performing a a very high level since Week 11. They have not been flawless, but they are probably executing at close to the capacity that can be expected of an NFL defense given the roster of players on the field. While Jack Del Rio could ask for more, I don’t know if the players can deliver any better than they already have.

That leaves the third option — improved offensive productivity — as the most likely path to a playoff win on Saturday. There certainly is lots of opportunity for improvement in execution from the offense.

To beat the Buccaneers, Washington needs to score more points than it has been during the 5-1 run that Alex Smith has put together as a starting quarterback this year.

Regular readers of Hogs Haven will probably realize that I am perhaps Alex’s second-biggest supporter on this site. If he were fully healthy, I would trust him to find a way to win the game against the Buccaneers. But, having seen him on the field in Philadelphia, I don’t think he’s healthy enough to use his full skillset. I just don’t think he’s likely to be able to consistently lead drives downfield against a good Tampa Bay defense.

In short, the third option is unrealistic for coaches to achieve through simple game planning due to Alex Smith’s current physical limitations. Tampa Bay’s defense will be able to stop Alex Smith because he lacks mobility at the moment, and there’s no way to change that.

When I was a lad, the teachers at my school told me that if I keep running the same calculations with the same variables, I’ll keep getting the same result. Sister Mary Catherine, my homeroom teacher, told me about Einstein’s statement that insanity was defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

It seems to me that Washington has to change the variables in the offensive scoring equation. There’s no opportunity to make meaningful changes at RB, receiver, tight end or the offensive line, but it is possible to make a dramatic change at the quarterback position.

The coaches can play Heinicke instead of Alex Smith and change the entire dynamic of the offensive scheme designed for the Tampa Bay game.

But will they do it?

I don’t envy Ron Rivera for his need to make a difficult decision here. If Alex Smith starts and finishes the game, and is as physically limited as he appeared to be against the Eagles, then I think the Football Team will lose.

But, the notion of starting Taylor Heinicke against the Buccaneers isn’t so appealing. Heinicke did, admittedly, look promising in his 9 minutes against the Panthers, but, in his 19 passes, one of them was thrown directly to the defense and should have been an interception — would have been an interception — but it was dropped. In the only start of his career (for Ron Rivera in Carolina in 2018) Taylor Heinicke threw three interceptions in a loss.

I can’t see Ron Rivera putting the playoff hopes of the franchise on Taylor Heinicke as the starting quarterback on Saturday night.

Rotating quarterbacks

The phrase, “rotating quarterbacks” seems to imply different guys on different plays or different series, or, perhaps, one guy between the 20s and a different guy in the red zone.

I have a different idea.

I think that Ron Rivera has to start Alex Smith on Saturday night. I think that’s what Ron wants to do; he trusts Alex and his leadership, and he believes that the veteran will bring the stability and coolness that the team, and in particular the young offensive players, can rely on.

I could list a half dozen other specific factors, but the bottom line is that I think the only practical way to go is to start Smith in this week’s playoff game.

The problem is that I don’t think Alex, with his impaired mobility, can do what’s necessary to win the game.

In my mind, the expectation should be that Alex will play long enough to get the Football Team settled and into a rhythm. This would include using his veteran savvy to deal with the Tampa Bay defensive scheme; meanwhile, the coaches would be on the sideline helping Heinicke understand what TB is doing, and talking him through how to deal with it.

I suspect that the Bucs will build a lead, but as long as they don’t extend the lead beyond two scores in the first half, I think Rivera will stick with Smith as the starter.

We have seen for most of the season that Jack Del Rio’s defense can shut teams down in the second half. My thought is that, if the Washington offense isn’t keeping up, the Ron will make the decision to put Taylor Heinicke in the game, perhaps at the start of the third quarter, to provide speed, mobility and aggressiveness that can change the equation.

Making the change comes with a risk, for sure, but there is never reward without risk. Heinicke could be over-excited; due to his lack of experience, the TB defense could fool him; he could throw multiple interceptions, almost certainly leading to a loss in the game.

But the upside opportunity seems worth it. Let’s say that Tampa Bay has an 11 point lead at the half, and Heinicke comes on the field with the goal of playing to win. For two quarters, he simply tries to get the most out of every drive. He’d have a clear target to score points, he’d be supported by the best second-half defense in the NFL, and he should be able to play with confidence.

Of course, this isn’t a fixed gameplan to switch jockeys midway through the race no matter what. Rather, it’s a pre-considered strategy to relieve Alex Smith if it becomes clear that he isn’t likely to be able to sustain enough drives to get the win. It’s the same decision that Ron made when he put Heinicke in to relieve Haskins against the Panthers, only without waiting quite so long.

In my mind, this is the most likely winning strategy for Saturday night — open with the veteran and play him as long as the game is in control, and when an offensive spark is needed, bring Heinicke in relief to close out the game. His performance against the Panthers indicates that he is capable of rallying the offense. It might be enough to secure the win.


What should the plan be for Saturday night?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    Alex Smith all the way
    (120 votes)
  • 24%
    Heinicke from start to finish
    (266 votes)
  • 61%
    Rotate quarterbacks, like coach suggested
    (666 votes)
  • 3%
    Steve Montez, baby!
    (36 votes)
1088 votes total Vote Now