You may be saying to yourself, “this is not the biggest question I can think of for Atlanta’s game against Washington this weekend. Fair, but hear me out.
Aaron Freeman already did a fantastic dive into the battle in the trenches and Allen Strk focused on the ground game, so it’s not necessary for me to cover those two angles when they’ve been so well-covered. I’m going to shift the focus for today’s discussion to another question that could impact the matchup in a major way.
Will the Falcons be able to bottle up Taylor Heinicke?
The answer to this one, if the defense is worth its salt, should be yes. Jalen Hurts, Tom Brady and Daniel Jones are all better and more dynamic quarterbacks than Heinicke, who still has done an admirable job as a starter to this point. If he’s at the top of his game with the weapons as his disposal, Heinicke can absolutely beat the Falcons, especially if Atlanta’s offense is lackluster for yet another week. The trick will be throwing him off his game.
As Andrew York at our sister site Hogs Haven told me this week—look for my Q&A with him tomorrow—Heinicke is a capable quarterback but one with limitations. He won’t beat Atlanta on his own, but if left to his own devices in a close game, he’ll probably fare well. When the situation begins to go sideways—he’s consistently under pressure, or the Football Team goes into a deep hole like they did against Buffalo—Heinicke starts to press and make mistakes.
My short summary for him would be that he’s good enough to win with (if the other pieces of the team are clicking), but not a QB you win because of (not going to take over a game by himself). Most importantly for us though, he is not the biggest reason we’ve been losing (that would be the defense) and he’s probably not a significant downgrade from Ryan Fitzpatrick.
I’m not expecting Atlanta to get out to a huge lead and create panic in Heinicke’s heart, so pressure will likely have to do the trick. He generally works to get the ball out fairly quickly and into the hands of his playmakers, who have the 12th-best yards after catch average in the league right now, and has faced pressure on about a quarterback of his dropbacks, taking just two sacks and scrambling away from pressure 10 times. Getting him down for a few more sacks would be welcome, but at the very least Atlanta should be relentless because Heinicke will hurry his throws when he feels pressure, as he’s done on about 16% of his attempts thus far in 2021. A Heinicke who is rushing his throws is a quarterback who can, as York told me, throw the ball too high or force it into coverage.
If pressure isn’t going to do the trick, York told me Atlanta can also try to take advantage of Heinicke’s tendency to try to be a hero.
If I’m the Falcons, I try to bait him into making “the big play” with disguised coverages guarding the deeper routes.
In a lengthy series of remarks, Dean Pees made it very clear that progress and development take time, and that while he’s hoping for the defense to be tremendous right now, he doesn’t have a particular timeline for everything to gel. Atlanta is in a prime stretch, however, and the fact that Grady Jarrett, Dante Fowler and others are rolling and they’ll get A.J. Terrell back bodes well. Some of the big stops against the Giants should have helped them build confidence heading into a winnable matchup, one where Washington may be without top running back Antonio Gibson. On a day where their opponent might be one-dimensional, impacting Heinicke and forcing him into mistakes should be the focus.
On Sunday, the Falcons will need to keep Matt Ryan clean and put together an effective passing attack against a so-so Washington secondary. If they can do that and get Heinicke off schedule, I really like their chances of walking off the field with a win.