Washington is in town today to face the Falcons, hopefully heading home this evening with a thorough and demoralizing loss in their back pocket. The Falcons will look to bank their second straight win by putting together their most complete effort yet, one that features the offensive line holding up against an extremely tough matchup.
Washington is more than just their impressive defensive line, though, and it’s worth learning a bit more about this week’s opponent ahead of the big game. I turned to Andrew York at Hogs Haven, SB Nation’s excellent Football Team site, in order to get some more insight into what this team looks like today and what their outlook is for the 2021 season.
You’ll find our Q&A below. Big thanks to Andrew for taking the time to give us a
Dave Choate: It sounds like Taylor Heinicke is going to quarterback this team for close to half the season. What are your impressions of his play so far in 2021, and if you’re the Falcons, what are you doing?
Andrew York: His play has been good for a backup, not quite starter quality so far. 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.
The longer answer is as follows. He’s got backup-quality arm strength, but the smarts to place the ball well (though he often floats it high) and read the field well when he’s not under pressure. He’s got a “gamer” mentality and plays better in games than he shows on the practice field, which is part of why he went undrafted and hasn’t had a chance in this league until he got forced into a starting role due to injury. However, I think part of that gamer mentality is that he can try too hard when the team is behind and he feels like the pressure is on him to win. I think that’s why his worst game by far this season was last week against the Bills. The Bills ran up the score on us early and Heinicke started making bad decisions to try and keep us in the game. He played much better against the Chargers and Giants, both games that stayed within reach (in terms of score) the whole game. He’s also got good athleticism and the ability to make and extend plays with his legs. Anyone who wants an even deeper dive can check out this breakdown of his play against the Giants.
If I’m the Falcons, I try to bait him into making “the big play” with disguised coverages guarding the deeper routes. If possible, I’d also go very aggressive early on offense to drive up the score and force him into gamer mode (though I realize every team would like to drive up the score early, it’s easier said than done). Heinicke has been known to ignore his checkdowns and throw into double coverage trying to get more yards, so I’d take advantage of that.
Dave Choate: On paper, there are few defenses in the NFL today that have more young talent to work with, especially up front. Are the early returns somewhat of a mirage, or are there real trouble spots on this Football Team defense that are going to persist all year?
Andrew York: It’s still early to say what the team will be later in the year, but I agree that there are trouble spots (really the whole defense has been bad) so far. It’s also true that the defense is full of players that have played well in the past and were expected to play better than they have so far. When you have one or two players who are giving up big plays, those players are the problem. But when all or most of your players on defense are underperforming, coaching is probably the problem and that’s where I’d put my money now. The biggest problem on defense so far has been busted coverages and problems communicating and handing off assignments (which is important in a predominantly zone defense like we have). If those sorts of issues still haven’t been figured out, I blame coaching more than anything. The DL have also underperformed, but I think the interior DL (Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Matt Ioannidis) have actually played pretty well, it’s the edge rushers (Chase Young and Montez Sweat) who have lost a lot of 1-on-1 matchups they should have won. I think that’s on those players as well as the coaches.
The good news for WFT fans is those are problems that can be fixed over the course of the season. If communication and mistakes are the problem, practice should fix those issues. It’s much harder to fix poor talent. I think these issues will get fixed, but I’m still worried about the defensive coaching long term, because there’s no reason the defense should be starting this slow.
Dave Choate: Offensively, this team has many weapons I really like, but thus far things seem to be running through McLaurin, Gibson and Thomas. Are there other players this Falcons defense needs to be wary of, or will they be able to largely focus on the big names and slow this offense effectively?
Andrew York: Those are the most important names for sure, but there are a few others worth mentioning. JD McKissick is a rotational RB who is primarily used on 3rd down, but has tremendous agility and explosiveness and can break runs to the edge for big plays. I’d compare him to James White (of the Patriots) in his prime. (Note from an editor who was hoping McKissick would make the Falcons roster years ago: Argh).
I’ll also mention WR Curtis Samuel, a former 1st round pick of the Panthers. He was one of our big free agent signings in the offseason. He’s been sidelined up until now with a groin injury, but it’s possible he makes his debut this week. If so, he adds 4.3 speed and YAC to our passing game and takes a lot of pressure off of Terry McLaurin to be the only big-play threat in the WR group.
Dave Choate: There seems to be a frustration level with Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio and the job they’re doing with this defense. What’s your level of concern with the coaching staff’s work thus far, particularly in terms of the D, and are there easy fixes you’re hoping to see on Sunday against a lousy Falcons offense?
Andrew York: My level of concern is pretty high, particularly for the defense. Is it an “easy fix” for players to know their assignments, communicate responsibilities to each other, and pass off players adequately? Those seem like the basic minimum expectations for defensive players, but it hasn’t been getting done. I have no idea if that’s easy to fix because it seems like it shouldn’t be a problem in the first place. The fact that it is a problem at all makes me worry that it won’t be easy to fix. Last year, the defense didn’t start to look respectable until around week 7, so I hope we can figure it out quicker this year.
On offense, I’m actually a bit less worried. My main concern is that our offensive tackles will be able to pass protect, as that has been a problem in previous weeks. I mainly want us to get the run game going, because that should be the foundation of our offense. If we can do that, the offense should be fine. I actually think our OC Scott Turner has done a pretty good job scheming up the offense around the available talent.
Dave Choate: What would be your prediction for this game and for your season overall? Will Washington rebound and push past the Cowboys to take the NFC East?
Andrew York: So much is up in the air regarding this team. Based on the talent on the roster, I think we should be able to claim the division. Based on how we have looked so far, we’ll be lucky to avoid last place in the division.
I actually think this might be a bounce-back game for Washington based on the matchups. In particular, I think our DL (embarrassed by last week’s performance) will play a harder game against Altanta’s OL (which has struggled in the past). I think our offense should be able to lean on the run game to keep us going, which will mitigate some of our weaknesses on offense. I think Washington will win in a close-fought game. At the same time, I have no confidence in anything working right for us, so we could easily get blown out as well.
In terms of the season, I have the same uncertainty. This team has a lot of fixable problems, but that doesn’t mean they will get fixed. If I had to bet money on a division winner right now, I’d bet on the Cowboys to win the NFCE. They have the only franchise QB in the division and they have played better so far than I was expecting. I was mainly down on the Cowboys in the offseason because I think Mike McCarthy is a terrible head coach (and I think he’s reinforced that believe with questionable clock management and in-game decision making). But I think he’s managed to find a good OC in Kellen Moore and a good DC in Dan Quinn (who seems to be a better coordinator than head coach) and those coordinators might be enough to hide his shortcomings. Washington could still win the division, but only if they start fixing their fixable mistakes.