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Washington Football Team beats itself at Lambeau Field

mistakes and bad decisions

NFL: Washington Football Team at Green Bay Packers Appleton Post Crescent-USA TODAY Sports

If you read the box score without looking at the scoreboard, you could be forgiven for assuming that Washington beat Green Bay rather handily on on Sunday. Just look at these stats:

If you happened to know that, coming into this game, Green Bay’s defense had given up a touchdown on every one of the 15 red zone possessions against their opponents in 2021, it would be easy to imagine a game played on Green Bay’s side of the field where Washington drilled in touchdown after touchdown.

In fact, despite the statistical dominance, the Football Team scored only 10 points, and lost by a margin of 14 points.

The reasons are many and varied, but they have at least as much to do with Washington’s self-destruction on key plays as with what the Packers players did during the game.

None was more emblematic of what was wrong with Washington in this game, however, than the ‘almost’ touchdown run by Taylor Heinicke with 6:03 remaining in the 3rd quarter. The official threw up both arms as Heinicke crossed the goal line, but sitting on my sofa at home, I winced, knowing that Heinicke had ‘given himself up’ inside the one-yard line.

Fans of other teams, and even other young NFL quartebacks, could be forgiven for not being aware of the 2018 rule change that says that a quarterback doesn’t have to slide to give himself up. In an attempt to protect quarterbacks, even if the QB who is running falls forward to avoid contact, he is marked down wherever his knee or other relevant body part lands, and he loses the benefit of any further forward progress. The application of this rule on a Taylor Heinicke run earlier in the season cost the team a first down, so there’s no chance the young QB and his head coach didn’t know the rule.

Heinicke made a halfhearted attempt to reach the ball across the goal line on his way to the ground, but he never broke the plane. The scrappy dive-for-the-pylon-in-the-playoffs guy that everyone loves to cheer for failed to get the touchdown because he’s now been coached to avoid hits. Heinicke fumbling the ball on the failed quarterback sneak on 4th & goal from the 18-inch line just rubbed salt in the wound.

Washington, in fact, “went for it” on 4th down three times when they were in field goal position. The failed sneak by Heinicke was an obvious situation where the team had to go for the touchdown, but the first decision to eschew the field goal in an effort to continue a drive was less clear-cut, and one that I didn’t agree with.

With the score tied at 7-7, and facing a 4th & 3 at the Green Bay 27-yard-line, Ron Rivera kept the offense on the field. Rivera’s former 2-time All Pro tight end, Greg Olsen, who was calling the game for Fox, said that he agreed with the decision. I, sitting in my living room, said out loud, “I don’t”. If results make you right, then I was right and Olsen was wrong. Stokes did good job defending the pass to Terry McLaurin, ending the drive. Given that Washington had had a 42-yard field goal attempt blocked on the previous offensive series, this was a hugely disappointing result. Instead of having 13 points on the board, the blocked field goal and failure to convert on 4th down left the team with just 7 points on the scoreboard — a number that didn’t change until there were less than 3 minutes left in the game.

Entering the 4th quarter, Washington trailed by 14 points, and when Mason Crosby nailed a 39-yard field goal with 11:26 left in the game, the Packers went up by 3 scores and Washington played increasingly desperate football. An all-too-familiar 4th quarter interception in the end zone on the following WFT offensive possession all but sealed the outcome of the game.

But things should have been different; the 4th quarter should have been a hard-fought contest. “If” is the most useless word in sports, but IF Taylor Heinicke had taken one more step to score that touchdown, and IF Ron Rivera had opted for a field goal attempt on 4th & 3 from the GB 27 yard line, then the 4th quarter might have been a competitive race to win instead of the Packers just running out the clock on an increasingly desperate Washington team.

Of course, one coaching decision and one bad decision by the quarterback were not the only reasons that Washington failed to turn its impressive statistical performance into a win on the scoreboard.

Terry McLaurin, for example, had a couple of miscues, but none more costly than his failure to catch a sliding touchdown in the end zone that appeared to ricochet off his facemask or shoulder pad.

Even costlier, however, may have been the fumble by Taylor Heinicke on the opening drive of the second half, though that was more a matter of good defense than bad play by the QB. It put the Packers in business on the WFT 27-yard-line, where they promptly added 7 points to the scoreboard.

It was the first of several fumbles by Washington players in the final third of the game, though ultimately none of them was lost to the Packers. On the second play of the following drive, after a 27-yard run, Deandre Carter fumbled the ball. Amazingly, Taylor Heinicke had run downfield with him, trying to block by getting in the way of some defenders, and, trailing Carter, was able to jump on the ball to retain possession for the Football Team.

Just two plays later, on 1st & 10 from the GB 11 yard line, Antonio Gibson lost the ball at the end of a 5-yard gain, though it was recovered by Chase Roullier. This was Gibson’s 4th fumble of the season. He had two fumbles against the Chargers in Week 1; one of them a game-changing turnover that may have cost Washington the potential victory. He lost a fumble against the Chiefs last week. Four fumbles on 117 touches has to be concerning for Gibson, the coaches and Washington fans.

For the most part, the defense played well on Sunday — at least, they played well enough for Washington to have been in the game in the 4th quarter if they’d gotten a bit of help from their offense. After giving up the traditional 75-yard touchdown drive to the Packers to open the game, the defense gave up one other long scoring drive, the short 27-yard drive following Heinicke’s fumble, and a 4th quarter field goal. Had Rodgers been forced to score points to win the game, I’m not sure the WFT defense could have stopped him on a final drive, but it never came to that.

Aside from Green Bay’s three TDs & and field goal, the results of their drives were: punt, blocked field goal, punt, fumble, punt. While it wasn’t a dominating defensive performance, it was enough to have kept Washington in the game, IF the offense had scored more than one touchdown in the first 55 minutes of the game.

Rodgers was sacked 3 times, with DT Jonathan Allen adding 2 sacks to his team-leading total of 5 sacks in 7 games.

The defense also forced a fumble. Green Bay had no running game to speak of; Aaron Jones ran the ball 6 times for 19 yards and Aaron Rodgers was the 2nd-leading rusher on the team with 17 yards. It was all that was needed, though, on a day when the QB threw for 3 touchdowns, including one to tight end Allen Lazard just before halftime that capped a 9-play, 72-yard drive where Lazard caught 5 passes, including the TD.

The game was relatively penalty-free, though Washington benefited from a phantom pass interference call on a failed 3rd & 8 that extended an offensive drive. No points resulted, however, as this was the drive that ended in Chris Blewitt’s blocked field goal on his first-ever NFL FG attempt.

All in all, this game was much more competitive than the final score would indicate. That is little consolation for a Washington team that has fallen to 2-5, in a three-way tie with the Giants and Eagles, 3.5 games in back of the Dallas Cowboys, who, at 5-1, appear to be cruising toward a division title and a spot in the playoffs.

Washington has one more game — against a struggling Denver Broncos team — before a Week 9 bye that will likely be welcomed by everyone. While the Football Team has played a tough schedule, it has done itself no favors, failing to put together a complete game against any of its opponents.

With more than half the season remaining, and with 5 consecutive NFC East games scheduled to close out the season, there is still time to turn things around, but the clock is ticking and the questions are piling up for a team that was highly touted by many NFL observers prior to the start of the season.