clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

If you don’t enjoy a win like this over Tampa Bay, then you aren’t a Washington football fan

This was fun!

My Tampa Bay ‘game plan’

I sit down to watch every Washington game believing that we can win. Sometimes I see the path to victory prior to the game; sometimes I don’t. Three times this season, the rational part of me has been unable to map a path to victory before the game started — against the Chargers, Bills & Packers, I thought the team was simply outmatched. For every other game this season, I’ve had a game plan in mind before the game started. Obviously, that hasn’t worked out very well most weeks.

This week, with Tampa Bay coming to town, I watched the Buccaneers loss to Trevor Siemian and the New Orleans Saints twice in my effort to “scout” the Bucs, and I thought I saw a path to victory against Tampa. In brief, here was my roadmap:

  1. Washington needed a +2 turnover margin — likely a pair of INTs and no giveaways by the Washington offense
  2. Washington needed Tampa Bay to shoot itself in the foot with penalties while the WFT avoided any stupid flags.
  3. When I had scouted the Saints earlier in the season, I felt that the NO return man Deonte Harris was very similar to Washington’s DeAndre Carter. Harris had a big game offensively for the Saints, and I thought that Carter could have a career high in offensive snaps and touches, and could be a difference maker.
  4. I didn’t think Washington would be able to run the ball effectively. My game plan envisioned Washington abandoning the run almost completely — perhaps 10-12 carries for around 35 yards. I thought the team would need to throw nearly every down to attack TB’s weak secondary. I was expecting Terry McLaurin to have a big day (say, 8 catches, 100 yards, 1 TD).
  5. I watched Jameis Winston make the Bucs pay for playing man-to-man by repeatedly taking off and running with the ball. I expected Taylor Heinicke to have at least 5 runs for at least three 1st downs, and maybe a rushing TD.
  6. I felt like the game would need to stay at about 46 points or less, with Washington having to score at least 26 to win.

Well, Washington won, and my ‘game plan’ was followed to some extent, but not completely.

Turnovers & penalties

Washington did, indeed, win the turnover battle, but it was +1, and the Washington giveway — a fumble by Dax Milne with about 12 12 minutes left in the game — seemed at the time to be the kind of momentum change that would inevitably lead to a Washington loss.

Tampa Bay did, in fact, have more penalties than Washington, but nothing like the dozen or so flags that they accrued in New Orleans. While the Bucs were penalized 6 times in the game, it was for only 43 yards, while Washington was flagged 3 times for 33 yards, but some of TB’s penalties were big, including a neutral zone infraction just before the 2-minute warning in the first half on a 3rd & 2 that gave Washington a free first down. Washington finished that drive with a field goal, but more than repaid the favor with a face mask penalty as time expired in the half, giving the Buccaneers a free play that they used to kick a field goal. In the 2nd half, a pass interference call in the end zone against Tampa Bay resulted in a 1st & goal from the 1-yard line that became an Antonio Gibson touchdown on the next play.

Deandre Carter

Deandre Carter wasn’t targeted as much in the passing game as I had expected, but he did a lot with his opportunities. Carter had 3 catches for 56 yards and a TD, averaging 18.7 yards per reception. I had expected him to get the ball on multiple screen passes as a partial replacement for what I expected to be Washington’s missing running game, but instead, he did most of his damage with 3 longer plays, including a 14-yard sideline catch for a 1st down on Washington’s opening drive, and a 20-yard reception for the Football Team’s first touchdown of the day in the second quarter. His only other catch was for 22 yards on Washington’s 4th offensive possession (resulting in their 4th score of the game).


The run game

While I felt that Washington would need to abandon the run, Scott Turner had other ideas. While Antonio Gibson ran for only 2.7 yards per carry, Jaret Patterson 1.8 ypc, and JD McKissic had just 2 runs for a total of 4 yards, the three combined for 30 carries. Including one run by DeAndre Carter (4 yards) and three scrambles by Taylor Heinicke, Washington ran the ball 34 times in 71 offensive plays, which demonstrates a stubborn commitment to the run in the face of very little success.

Still, Washington made the offensive formula work, converting 11-19 3rd downs and going 2-2 on 4th down, with Gibson rushing for 2 touchdowns, including the TD on 4th & goal that sealed the win, putting Washington up by 10 points with 00:29 on the clock.

As often as not, Gibson was being hit 2 or 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and was tackled for loss time and again throughout the game. But game script also meant that Washington relied on AG during the final clock-eating, back-breaking drive that took 19 plays and chewed up 10:26 of the 4th quarter. In that drive, Gibson ran the ball 9 times, and McKissic and Carter had a carry each. The runs went for 2 yards, 4 yards, 7 yards, 3 yards, 2 yards, 4 yards, -1, 5, 0, 3 and 1 (touchdown). Eleven runs for 30 yards sounds like frustratingly low output for an offense, but Washington’s ability to convert on 3rd down four times in a row during the drive (and to punch in a TD at the end) made it successful.


Taylor Heinicke scrambling

I said that my ‘game plan’ relied on Taylor Heinicke gashing the Tampa Bay defense several times on scrambles. In fact, he got sacked 5 times for 30 yards, and scrambled successfully only 3 times for 15 yards. Looking at the offensive metrics (aside from the scoreboard) it’s hard to imagine that Washington won this game going away. The team averaged just 4.5 yards per offensive play, managed just 94 rushing yards on 34 carries (2.8 ypc), and gave up 5 sacks.

Keeping drives alive

The key to the offensive success in this game was success on 3rd and 4th down. After struggling all year to maintain drives, Washington converted 11 of 19 3rd downs — and on two of the failed conversions, they went for it and made it on 4th down, meaning that the team ultimately converted 13 of 19 potential drive-enders. This is the element that has been missing from the offense for most of the 2021 season, and it made all the difference against Tampa Bay.

A typical NFL matchup sees each team with 11 or 12 offensive drives per game. In this game, Washington had 10 drives while TB had 9. Washington ran 71 offensive plays and possessed the ball for over 39 minutes, while the Bucs ran 47 offensive plays and had the ball for less than 21 minutes.

How important was Heinicke’s scrambling? Well, his first scramble on a 3rd down didn’t get a 1st down, but did move the ball into field goal range, helping put 3 important points on the board. His two other scrambles both came on the final touchdown drive of the game. His first was a crucial 3-yard gain on 3rd & 2 at Washington’s 28-yard line that made the rest of the drive possible. His last scramble of the day was just a 2 yard gain on 2nd & 6. On the following play (3rd & 4) Adam Humphries had his only catch of the game — a 5 yard reception that moved the chains and kept the drive alive. Humphries hasn’t been catching a huge number of balls this season, but somehow every one of them seems to be a chain-mover.

Terry McLaurin

Terry McLaurin led all WFT receivers in catches & yards with 6 for 59, so he didn’t have the kind of day I expected him to have, but he was tough. My clearest memory of the game came on Washington’s final pass play of the game. It was 3rd & 5 at the Tampa Bay 15-yard line with 3:05 remaining on the clock. If the Bucs could force a field goal, then there would be plenty of time for Brady to do his magic.

But Tampa Bay didn’t get the stop. Instead, Terry McLaurin caught the ball at the line to gain, and was subjected to a vicious pair of hits as he got blasted by Dean and Whitehead. I saw the hit and, initially assumed that Terry would have been knocked unconscious, and I looked to see if he’d dropped the ball. He hadn’t.

I never expected Terry to stand up. I thought that the trainers would have to sprint onto the field and cart him off. I was flooded with relief and pride when Terry not only stood up, but came up beating his chest like King Kong. Damn!! That’s my guy!!


Injuries

It was a costly win for a team that was still struggling to get healthy, even following the bye week.

Montez Sweat came away from the Broncos game with a broken jaw that is expected to keep him out until mid-December. In this game, the other starting DE, Chase Young, was carted helped off the field in obvious pain, and appeared on the sideline in the second half in street clothes and on crutches. I’ve already seen early reports that a torn ACL is feared, which would end CY’s season, and start a clock running on a potential 2022 return.

With Logan Thomas out with a hamstring injury suffered early in the Week 4 game, Ricky Seals-Jones has been playing admirably in his stead.

But RSJ got knocked out in the first half against Tampa Bay. Rookie 4th round draft pick, John Bates, who had seen limited action this season, stepped in and did pretty well, catching 3 passes for 25 yards.

There was one ‘oh shit’ moment when he appeared to lose a fumble, but on review, he was ruled down by contact. There will be fingers crossed both for Logan Thomas to be healthy again for the Week 11 game in Carolina, but also for RSJ’s injury to be minor and his recovery quick.

Fast start and good defense

Incredibly, Washington scored on its opening offensive drive and never surrendered the lead. With the defense securing a 3 & out against Tampa Bay’s offense on the opening drive, then coming up with a pair of opportunistic interceptions on the Bucs’ side of midfield on the next two TB offensive drives, Washington took control early and never really took its foot off the neck of the defending Super Bowl champs.

Heinicke’s best game

In my opinion, this was the best game of Taylor Heinicke’s young career. After struggling for weeks to find himself in Scott Turner’s offense, I thought No. 4 did most things right today.

Mistakes & momentum swings

The only time I really remember being frustrated with him was when he took a sack on his own 1-yard line on 2nd down on the second offensive drive of the 2nd half.

Following the punt out of the end zone, TB scored its first touchdown of the day, which I think flowed from that bad sack by Heinicke, but he and the offense answered with a touchdown on Washington’s following drive to blunt the momentum gained by this field position shift.

The one other huge mistake was the Dax Milne fumble early in the 3rd quarter. It had that, “Oh no, we’re finding a way to lose again” feeling.

When Tampa Bay scored in a 3-play, 47-yard drive that featured a 40-yard TD pass from Brady to Mike Evans, the inevitable collapse felt...well, inevitable. Only the missed extra point to leave Washington with a 4-point lead provided any silver lining at that point.

But that’s when the offense put together its game-sealing, and possibly season-defining, 19 play drive (which, unusually, didn’t include a single penalty against either team) to score the touchdown and put the game out of reach.

So, I’m saying there’s a chance...

I realize that no one wants to talk about playoff opportunities for a team that is 3-6, but this is a team that has had improbable playoff runs after starting 3-6 in 2012, 3-5/4-6 in 2015, and 2-7 in 2020.

As I write this, the late-afternoon games are still being played and the SNF and MNF games have yet to start, but if the playoffs were to be at the end of this week’s play, then the two teams qualifying for the 6th & 7th seeds in the NFC would either both have 5 wins, or one of them (the Saints) would be 5-4 while the final seed would be a 4-win team.

That means that Washington will be either one or two games out of playoff position at the end of this week of play. Of the 5 teams that sit between Washington and a playoff seeding, Washington plays Carolina next week, and the Seahawks a week later. Wins in those two games would go a long way towards making the Football Team legitimate contenders for a wildcard spot. An early-season win over Atlanta gives Washington the tie-breaker over the Falcons. With 5 NFC East games to finish out the season, the Football Team could find itself contending for a playoff spot if they can play at the same level that they did in today’s victory over the Bucs, who are unanimously seen as a legitimate playoff team.


It’s popular for fans to say that they’d rather not qualify for the playoffs just to lose in the first game, and to see losing as the path to better draft position and a better roster next year, but I’ve never subscribed to that philosophy. Just get into the playoffs, and it’s a new season.

I’d rather have a team that had to win a bunch of games in December and January to get into the playoffs than one that got in despite losing a bunch of games late in the year. Being healthy and confident at season’s end is more important than piling up wins in September and limping into the postseason.

With today’s win against the defending World Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, possibilities remain for the Washington football team. Maybe they want it enough to make it happen.