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It took a while to realize what I’d seen; the Commanders were simply a better team than the Texans

Grinding out the wins

Washington Commanders v Houston Texans Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

For many years, Washington fans have had to analyze what went right in each victory in hopes of seeing the team do it again. Usually, the answer stands out — key turnovers, a couple of outstanding pass plays or maybe a dominant run game or pass rush.

After spending a relaxing 3 hours watching the Commanders take an early lead, build on it, and then give up a TD scoring opportunity in the final 2 minutes in favor of simply running out the clock in a clear victory, I was left wondering just how the team had done it.

Clearly, the Commanders defensive line had outmatched the Texans’ offensive line. The defensive secondary created a touchdown on a pick-6 on the Texans’ second offensive snap, and killed another Houston drive with another interception in the 4th quarter. Davis Mills was under constant pressure; he was sacked 5 times for 42 yards, and hit 9 times; Taylor Heinicke was relatively comfortable by comparison, getting hit 6 times and sacked not at all.

For the first time all season, Logan Thomas was a big factor in the passing game — in fact, it was probably the first time that any tight end on the team had really been able to put together more than a one or two good plays in the passing offense, though the 2 & 3 TE sets we’ve been seeing of late have made a huge difference in the blocking effectiveness (so much so that Taylor Heinicke said he’d be buying Js for the tight ends this week, after supplying them to the OL last week).

In the running game, the Commanders put up another grind-it-out performance, with 40 rushes for 153 yards; the defense held the Texans to just 21 yards on 16 carries, with lead back Dameon Pierce managing just 8 yards on 10 total carries. Pierce had averaged 112 yards per game and over 4.8 yards per carry over the previous 6 weeks, with 4 games of at least 92 rushing yards.

Several indicators, however, were not very strong for the Commanders.

  • Washington was 1-4 (touchdowns) in the red zone
  • Washington was 3-13 on 3rd down (but 2-2 on 4th down)
  • Taylor Heinicke threw for less than 200 yards, with a passer rating of 77.9 and a QBR of 51.4. Basically, he did enough and avoided any mistakes. He did not have an interception in a game for the first time this season.
  • The longest play from scrimmage was 19 yards (though the team had 5 plays by 4 different players go for 17 yards or more).
  • Washington was penalized more (5-36 yards) than Houston (2-15)
  • Interestingly, this was probably, in my opinion, the worst game I’ve seen Tress Way have in quite a while. His 2nd punt went for 29 yards; his 3rd punt was a touchback that netted 26 yards; his 4th was a beauty - 48 yards and fair caught at the 6. His 1st & last punts were pretty ‘normal’ — around 41 yards net.

The Texans were held to just 3 points until the Washington defense surrendered a time-killing 11-play, 55 yard drive that resulted in a Houston TD with just 3:19 left on the clock.

On the Commander’s subsequent drive, the offense drove 38 yards in 7 plays, reaching the Houston 7 yard line, where they ran out the clock with the final snap of the game coming with 27 seconds remaining, and Washington still in possession of a timeout. The reason the score didn’t end up 30-10 was because, as mentioned earlier, Antonio Gibson eschewed the touchdown run to (smartly) give himself up as part of the effort to just run out the clock and end the game with a clear victory.

Washington took the early lead, and never surrendered it. The Texans were held scoreless in the first half and managed only 5 yards of net offense before halftime. The Commanders were never threatened in the game, and ended up with a 13-point margin of victory that could have easily been a 20-point margin of victory.

When I think about the game, I don’t think of any factor like offensive or defensive scheme, blitzing, turnovers, officiating or big plays that made the difference.

Instead, what I come away with is this one idea: the Commanders were the better football team when they walked on the field, and, by simply playing the game to their potential, they easily handled the less-talented Texans.

This is remarkable for only one reason: I can’t remember the last time I felt this way after watching Washington win a game.

I had the sense that, no matter what the Texans tried to do offensively or defensively, Washington was simply equipped to handle it. What a giddy feeling!

Please don’t think that I’m intentionally trying to “throw shade” on the Texans. As a Washington fan, I’m not in the business of ridiculing other teams.

Because I have lived abroad for so long, and because the internet — even 15 years ago — wasn’t always what it is today with respect to streaming and video, I went through a long stretch of about 15 years without watching NFL football. It was only with my discovery of Game Pass in 2012 that I re-connected with the sport.

The first NFL game I watched after my long hiatus from the sport was a Houston Texans game some time in 2010 or 2011 that was broadcast on a Bangkok cable TV channel. The NFL had morphed from giant shoulder pads, huge running backs and linebacker dominated defenses to a more streamlined look and a short-passing game that sought to exploit coverage mismatches. In the game that I watched, the Texans offense was unstoppable. I walked into work the next day and said as much to a good friend of mine who laughed and agreed that the Gary Kubiak coached team that featured Arian Foster at running back was pretty intimidating.

Between 2012 and 2019, the Texans won 5 division championships in 8 seasons, and they were one of the rare AFC teams that I paid any attention to. During Deshaun Watson’s first couple of seasons, it appeared that the Texans were set to be among the AFC powerhouse teams for a decade.

It has, of course, all gone to shit since 2019, with the Texans winning just 5 games in nearly 3 seasons of play, but anyone who thinks this 1-8-1 team is just a punching bag hasn’t been paying attention. Houston has played an almost identical schedule to the Commanders (Colts, Bears, Jaguars, Titans, Eagles, Giants) and, although they’ve been losing, they haven’t been getting blown out.

That’s why it surprised me when I realized that, this past Sunday, Washington, on nearly every play, was simply better, man-for-man, than the Texans. Washington was winning at the line of scrimmage; the Commanders were running more successfully, passing more successfully, playing better defense, forcing more turnovers, and getting more sacks. Houston simply had no answers. This was not a game of momentum swings — it was the slow, inevitable grind of an imperfect Commanders team simply taking care of business against a flawed Texans team.

Good teams win the games they should win. For too long, Washington has been inconsistent — coming up with big wins on occasion, but too often failing to “take care of business” against struggling teams.

The 2022 season started horribly and had a lot of fans turning their attention to the 2023 draft before the month of September was finished.

Whether it’s coincidence or not (and I don’t think it is), the Commanders have seemed to be a different team since Taylor Heinicke took over for the injured Caron Wentz in Week 7 — this is the 3rd time in 3 seasons under Ron Rivera that ‘the switch’ seemed to get thrown in Week 7 — and the team has won 4 of 5 games with #4 as the starter, and 5 of its last 6 overall.

The crazy part about the surge (I almost wrote “resurgence”, but of course, there’s no “re” about it) is that it’s been led by stellar defensive play.

Over the first five weeks of the season, the Commanders defense was surrendering 25.6 points and 345.6 yards per game and had only one takeaway, but since Week 6 those numbers have gone down to 15.8 points and 276.7 yards with 12 takeaways. How can that correlate with the undersized UDFA quarterback with the outsized heart who is 5-1 in his past 6 starts and 9-5 for his past 14?

It doesn’t seem likely, or even possible, that Taylor Heinicke — who is averaging just 210 yards passing per game in 2022, and who has thrown 5 TDs and 4 INTs — can take any credit for what has gone on. Surely, the team has won in spite of him, not because of him. He isn’t playing on the defensive side of the ball.

Yet, there’s something intangible and infectious about Heinicke’s belief and his propensity to play every snap as though it were his last in the NFL; his teammates on offense, defense and special teams all seem to raise their level of play in response to his unique brand of fiery leadership and — dare I say — moxie.

Of late, Taylor’s ability to lead several clock-killing drives per game by successfully handing the ball off to his running backs and hitting just enough passes to extend drives has probably meant a lot to the defensive players, who have only had to go on the field for about 50 snaps per game in the team’s wins — 54 snaps (Texans), 47 snaps (Eagles), 54 snaps (Colts), and 47 snaps (Packers).

Washington is not a good enough team to count on winning every week the way they did against the Texans. The Commanders only scored one offensive touchdown in 4 red zone trips (though, again, that needs to be tempered by the fact that they voluntarily killed the clock at the Texans’ 7-yard line to kill the game).

The Falcons are both beatable and a rival for a wildcard playoff spot. They will be coming to FedEx Field on Sunday at 1pm. The opening spread has Washington as 4-point favorites, with an over/under of 43 points. A win by the Commanders would open up a 2-game lead over the Falcons in the win column, and an effective 3-game lead with the head-to-head tie breaker.

Washington also needs to win to keep the pressure on the 49ers, who are 8-point favorites over the Cardinals on Monday Night Football.

I’m looking ahead a bit (something that players shouldn’t do, but it’s okay for fans); with the loss to the Lions yesterday, the Giants suddenly look vulnerable — and they have to play the Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving in a game that probably benefits Washington regardless of the outcome. Washington currently has 6 wins to the Giants’ 7 wins, but the two teams play each other in Weeks 13 & 15. If Washington were able to sweep the G-men, they could leapfrog them in the Wildcard standings, and could end up competing for a seeding as high as #6.

To make any of this possible, however, the Commanders have to play better offensively than they have so far.

Let me leave you with the observations of Jim Trotter to close out today’s article:

There is not a better story this year than the Commanders’ recent turnaround, especially when you consider how much adversity the players and coaches have faced this season.

They opened the season 1-4, found themselves caught in the despicable web of controversy created by owner Daniel Snyder, received a scare when rookie running back Brian Robinson was shot twice on Aug. 28 during an attempted robbery, and were forced to answer questions about whether they partnered with the wrong quarterback after trading for Carson Wentz.

All they’ve done since is win five of six, including handing the Eagles their only loss of the season. Their defensive line, which is loaded with high draft picks, is playing like a dominant force — and it should only get stronger with Chase Young expected to return from injury soon.

The team appears to have found a kindred spirit in quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who has been overlooked and counted out for much of his career. Heinicke has provided spirited play and timely passes since replacing Wentz.

I don’t know where the Commanders will wind up at the end of the year — at 6-5, they’re still in fourth place in the NFC East, with two more losses than the third-place Giants. But I do know they’re the best story in the league to this point.