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Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: Washington’s mistakes vs Saints too much to overcome

New Orleans Saints v Washington Football Team Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

I was very confident about Washington this week ahead of the Saints game. I’ve been confident about the game since preseason. I had it marked down as a victory in advance.

After the first three offensive drives, with the score at 13-7 in favor of Washington, I was feeling pretty good, despite a few hiccups in the early going. I believed the team was playing well enough to win the game.

It didn’t turn out that way. For most of the first three quarters, it felt like Washington was outplaying New Orleans, and that they should have a lead on the scoreboard. For the most part, however, the score was even or the Saints were ahead from the end of the first half onward.

As the second half wore on, the Washington mistake piled up faster than the mistakes by the Saints, and this one went into the books as another frustrating loss that could have easily turned out differently if the players had just made better decisions, or better plays that they should be capable of.

I thought I’d just snapshot some of the specific plays from this game that stood out to me.

Saints 2nd & 10 at NO 39 (13:19 - 1st)

Cole Holcomb made an early interception and I thought it was a great sign of things to come, especially as it happened while the broadcast team was discussing the problems Washington had had at LB all year.

Football Team 3rd & 5 at NO 26 (12:38 - 1st)

This is that early Heinicke pass that sailed over the head of a wide-open Deandre Carter on 3rd down. Carter probably wouldn’t have scored, but he would have set up the offense in what was likely to be first & goal. This pass was the first sign of trouble on the day. Heinicke has a habit of sailing balls, especially early in games until he settles down; he has to learn to settle down faster.

Saints 3rd & 7 at NO 28 (11:13 - 1st)

Winston threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Deonte Harris who simply ran past the entire WFT secondary for a catch & score. There has been at least one play like this in every game this season. It just shouldn’t happen.

At the time, I felt a bit sage, as I had written a long comment ahead of the game predicting that Harris was likely to be trouble for the Washington defense:

The guy who leapt off the screen at me is #11 Deonte Harris. He is their version of Deandre Carter; he is their primary kick returner. He is averaging 10.6 yards per punt return and 26.9 yards per kickoff return — both well above average.

But on offense, he looks a lot like Steven Sims did on his best days in a burgundy & gold uniform. He is lightning quick with great acceleration, and seems to have sure hands. He has 11 catches this season, and is averaging 13.9 yards per reception. His average is skewed upward a bit by a long TD reception in Week 1, but he has consistently averaged around 10 yards per catch in the other three games.

Harris was used heavily on offense against the Giants, getting 5 catches on 8 targets. He was dangerous on quick catch & run plays like tunnel screens. The WFT defense seems to play a lot like the Giants D, and I think we may see Harris get similar use and put up similar numbers offensively, and, like Cordarrelle Patterson, I think he has the potential to break a long punt or kick return at any time to change field position or even score a TD. I think he may be the guy that Washington struggles to contain in this game.

I guess I wasn’t surprise that he was the one to break a long TD against the defense, and I kinda hoped at that point that they’d gotten it out of their system and would avoid breakdowns the rest of the way. It proved to be a vain hope.

Saints 2nd & 5 at 50 (3:27 - 1st)

This was the strip-sack by Chase Young recovered by Daron Payne. I took this as a sign that the defense was going to successfully harass Jameis Winston all day.

My confidence was completely restored after having been shaken a bit by the long touchdown pass earlier.

Football Team 4th & 15 at NO 49 (1:00 - 1st)

This was the roughing call against the Saints that extended the Washington offensive drive. Once again, the breaks seemed to be going our way, and I was buoyed, feeling like this game had a sense of inevitability to it; Washington was gonna win this one.

Saints 1st & 10 at NO 49 (12:24 - 2nd)

This was the shot to the head that William Jackson put on Taysom Hill. Bad karma.

Football Team 2nd & 7 at NO 16 (7:03 - 2nd)

This was the first Heinicke interception on a puzzling ball that was thrown flat and pretty much directly to the defender, who had perfect position on Curtis Samuel. The game was tied at 13 and Washington had marched down the field from their own 25-yard line, and this felt, before this interception, like the Football Team was destined to go up 20-13.

This was a knife to the gut. A bad decision, a bad throw, an interception. The only silver lining was that it left the Saints with crappy field position.

The defense stepped up and forced a 3 & out, and I confess I felt then like the offense would just march back down the field and score the touchdown they had been about to score when Heinicke threw the pick. Of course, it didn’t happen. Washington not only didn’t score, they turned the ball over on downs, giving NO fantastic field position.

Football Team 4th & 10 at NO 35 (4:12 - 2nd)

The announcers wanted Rivera to try the field goal here. I wanted him to bring on the team’s MVP, Tress Way, to pin the Saints deep in their own territory. The defense had just gotten a 3 & out, and I figured they could do it again.

Only Terry McLaurin’s big toe, which is the degree to which he was out of bounds on his otherwise great catch, prevented Ron Rivera from being right. It was a beautiful throw from Heinicke, and when I first saw the play, I celebrated — possibly waking my neighbors — but that celebration was premature.

This play was probably the turning point in the game from “mostly Washington” to “mostly New Orleans”.

Saints 4th & 18 at NO 39 (1:53 - 2nd)

I have long been a proponent of field position as a weapon. Washington has traditionally used Tress Way’s leg as a huge artillery piece in the field position battle, but on Sunday, New Orleans had the more accurate gun in the form of punter Blake Gillikin.

He nailed a beautiful punt that rolled out of bounds at the one-yard line. I dunno if anyone else calls it this, but when I was a boy, I read a series of books about a high school football team, and the coach in that fictional series referred to this as a “coffin corner” punt.

I initially wrote this off as a flukey bit of luck on a directional kick, but Gillikin did it again later in the game, and he put the ball on or inside of the Washington 3 yard line three times in this game. I hope Sean Payton gave him a game ball, because he was responsible for the Football Team working from the shadow of their own goals posts for much of the second half of the game.

Personally, I believe that this element of the game is what helped Washington win several games in 2020, and I think it was integral to the New Orleans victory yesterday. This was an incredible game for Gillikin.

Saints 1st & 10 at WSH 49 (0:00 - 2nd)

Pretty much as a direct result of Gillikin’s punting, New Orleans ended up with the ball right around midfield with time for one play.

Winston wound up and threw the ball into the end zone on a Hail Mary pass.

Only one person on the field really went up for the ball, and he’s the one who came down with it — Marquez Callaway of the Saints.

This was stunningly bad defense from a team that just minutes earlier had seemed set to take a lead into the half and come out to receive the second half kickoff firmly in control of the game.

Instead, New Orleans, after being outplayed for the most part, went in with a 20-13 lead. I had the Eagles-Panthers game on my 2nd computer, and my only solace was that the Panthers were killing Philly and had a 15-3 halftime lead.

Saints 4th & 5 at NO 40 (13:06 - 3rd)

Gilllikin’s second brilliant punt of the day, pinning Washington at the 3 yard line.

Football Team 1st & 10 at WSH 3 (12:57 - 3rd)

On first down, the snap went awry. Heinicke didn’t panic, but scooped the ball up in the end zone, rolled right and hit Ricky Seals-Jones for an apparent 44-yard gain.

Similar to the toe-out-of-bounds play by Terry McLaurin in the first half, I made a lot of celebratory noise in my living room at 2am in Bangkok.

My celebration was short lived, as Schweitzer was about 10 yards downfield when the pass occurred, negating the play. The color commentator (the retired kicker...can’t recall his name right now) described the penalty as ‘inexcusable’ but given how the play had broken down and how Heinicke had gone off script, I thought this was harsh criticism.

It was, however, deflating to lose the apparent great field position out on the NFL logo and have to run the play again from near the goal line.

Saints 4th & 7 at NO 45 (14:00 - 4th)

Gillikin’s 3rd great punt of the day put Washington at their own 3 yard line, and, I think, began to frustrate Taylor Heinicke, who was struggling to move the team effectively.

Football Team 3rd & 10 at WSH 2 (13:44 - 4th)

Both teams opened up the second half unable to achieve anything offensively. Washington and New Orleans had both had three offensive drives. The Saints had been shut out, and WFT had been forced to settle for a field goal after having gotten to 1st & goal at the New Orleans 6 yard line.

Now, pinned down near the goal line again, and having thrown incomplete passes on 1st & 2nd down, it seemed like Taylor Heinicke lost his patience and decided to sling the ball no matter what.

Instead of getting enough of a gain to give Tress Way a bit of room to punt from his own end zone, Heinicke tried to get the first down, but threw his second inexplicable interception of the day, giving New Orleans a very short field and the chance to take a two-score lead. It took the Saints just 4 plays to do just that, establishing an 11-point lead with about 12 minutes left.

Football Team 4th & 14 at NO 49 (10:08 - 4th)

This was a 4th-down conversion that brought me to my feet in my living room in the middle of the night, clapping and cheering. Heinicke hit Deandre Carter for 26 yards on a 4th & 14 play, and, for one last shining moment, I felt like maybe my belief in Washington’s destiny hadn’t been so misplaced after all.

Heinicke had commanded two 4th quarter comeback wins in the previous three weeks — with 10 minutes left, there was time for him to do it again.

I also think you’ve got to admire Deandre Carter; he had a huge 3rd down conversion in the 4th quarter against the Falcons that led directly to the winning score, and this 4th down conversion against New Orleans also led to a touchdown that kept Washington in the game late. For a guy who was written off as a marginal returner and being less skilled as a pass-catcher than Steven Sims, whom he replaced, Carter has performed well under pressure two weeks in a row.

After that

Heinicke did drive the team 75 yards for a touchdown to make it a one-score ballgame again, but when Jameis Winston matched him by doing the exact same thing and opening up a 33-22 lead with 3:15 left to play, there wasn’t enough magic left for the WFT offense to score again.

The three major themes that stood out to me in this loss:

No. 1 - Field Position

Obviously, Blake Gillikin had a great game punting, and his success had a lot to do with limiting Washington’s scoring.

The decision by Rivera to go for it on 4th & 10 late in the 2nd quarter instead of punting for field position also didn’t work out. As I said above, Terry McLaurin came within a couple of inches of sideline chalk of proving Rivera right, but failing to convert this play and Heinicke’s 4th quarter interception both contributed to a tough field-position day for the Football team for the final 34 minutes of play.

No. 2. - Interceptions thrown by Heinicke

Both of Taylor’s interceptions were head-scratchers. I guess you could explain them as Taylor “trying to make something happen”, but both were horrendous decisions by a player who is supposed to be a good decision maker.

The first cost the team a sure 3 points, as they were already in FG position, and potentially a touchdown, as the offense had been very successful up to that point.

The second cost the team ground in the field position game and set up NO on a short field and an easy touchdown.

After the game, when reporters asked how he felt he played, Heinicke said, “Pretty good....except for the interceptions”, which is akin to “aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

No. 3 - Coverage breakdowns on defense

It’s just ridiculous at this point.

Now seems like a good time to shake things up a little by promoting a player or two from the practice squad and benching some players who’ve had 5 games to figure out how to play in Washington’s scheme but haven’t been able to do it.

Where we are now

The team is 2-3 after losing a game that they controlled early.

Up next is a home game against the Kansas City Chiefs, who themselves are 2-3 and looking for a win to keep them competitive in their division. KC lost 38-20 at home to the Bills on Sunday.

I think everyone has had this inked in as a loss since the schedule was announced, but perhaps Washington can surprise everyone. The only way they will be able to stay competitive with Andy Reid’s team is to play mistake-free football. What they did yesterday against the Saints won’t be nearly good enough.