Week 12 is here, and the Atlanta Falcons just snapped a two-game losing streak with a victory over the Chicago Bears in Week 11. That’s brought the Falcons back within striking distance of .500 at 5-6, but they’ve got a formidable foe ahead of them in the 6-5 Washington Commanders. After scuffling to start the year behind veteran starter Carson Wentz, the team turned to Taylor Heinicke and have started winning games. The defense is dangerous and the offense is frisky, and Washington is no longer the easy opponent they appeared to be early in the season.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you all incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Commanders, so I’ve enlisted the help of a Washington expert known only as Kyle Smith for GM (KS4GM). KS4GM is a writer over at Hogs Haven, SB Nation’s site for all things Washington Commanders.
I brought five questions to KS4GM to try to get a better read on the Commanders success since starting Heinicke, the dominance of their defensive line, and how they’ll approach defending Atlanta’s run game.
Q1. The Commanders were forced to turn to Taylor Heinicke at quarterback after Carson Wentz’ injury, but it seems to have worked out well. Is Heinicke the starter going forward, or will Wentz return once he’s healthy enough to play?
KS4GM: A sizable portion of Washington’s fanbase was calling for Heinicke at least a game or two before Wentz went down. We had gotten the full range of the Carson Wentz Experience (TM), and it was making us nauseated. The defense had been improving since about week 3, but once Heinicke took over, the entire energy of the team changed. He galvanized the team behind him, and after helping to beat the Eagles, he made it impossible for Ron Rivera to put Wentz back into the line-up short of a catastrophic meltdown or serious injury.
Q2. Washington has a clear commitment to running the football (8th in rushing attempts), but hasn’t done so effectively (3.9 YPC average, 27th). How important is the success of the rushing attack to the Commanders gameplan on offense?
KS4GM: Early in the season, offensive coordinator Scott Turner was pass happy, forcing a statuesque Wentz to try to beat teams with his arm behind a makeshift offensive line. In Washington’s first game against the Eagles, Wentz was sacked 9 times. Eventually, he dialed back the passing game, and the return of Brian Robinson from his pre-season gunshot wounds allowed Washington to launch its two-headed rushing attack. Robinson is the bruiser, and Antonio Gibson is the weapon back - in the mold of Cordarelle Patterson (https://www.hogshaven.com/2022/8/15/23307364/its-time-to-end-this-antonio-gibson-experiment) - who is capable of taking it to the house on any given play.
Over the past several weeks, Washington has shown it’s willing to stick with the run, even when it’s not particularly efficient, and it’s worked well. Last I saw, they led the league in time of possession. I expect them to stick with that approach against the Falcons, even though an aerial attack might be more effective against Atlanta’s defense.
Q3. The Commanders feature one of the best defensive lines in football, and that was without Chase Young. Do you expect Young to return this week, and how has Washington handled his absence so successfully?
KS4GM: Young has been practicing this week, and there’s a chance he could play “on a snap count” - as Ron Rivera put it - this Sunday, but I don’t expect him to be a huge factor in this game. The rest of the defensive line, however, will be critical. Just before the season began, former defensive line coach Sam Mills was abruptly fired. Fans weren’t particularly sad to see him go because the defensive line, with even more talent on it last year, woefully underperformed.
This season, under new line coach Jeff Zgonina, the line is finally performing as promised. The interior pressure from Daron Payne and Jon Allen has been relentless. Montez Sweat has been more disciplined in collapsing the pocket and has had success as a result. Even Young’s back ups, James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill have performed well in his absence. And, to top it all off, Washington stole ferocious rookie run-stopper John Ridgeway from the Cowboys off waivers early in the season. If Young can come back later this season and match, say, Sweat’s effort, it’s going to be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
Q4. Atlanta is an offense utterly reliant on running the ball. Washington has done a great job at limiting opposing rushing attacks, as they’re 6th rushing yardage allowed and 9th in yards per carry allowed. How do you feel about the Commanders’ ability to slow down Cordarrelle Patterson and the Falcons run game?
KS4GM: If there’s one thing I have faith in with this Washington team, it’s their ability to stop the run. The Texans Dameon Pierce is a tough, explosive back, and Washington held him to a mere 8 yards on 10 carries last week. The Falcons, even without Kyle Pitts, are going to have to try to make the passing game work, or they’ll be eaten alive. It looks like Patterson has gotten very little use as a receiver so far this year. If I were Arthur Smith, I’d change that this week.
Q5. The DraftKings line has continued to move towards the Commanders with the news that the Falcons will be without Kyle Pitts for the foreseeable future. What’s your prediction for the game on Sunday?
KS4GM: I think, and hope, that Washington walks away with this one in much the same manner as the game against the Texans, but I also think there will be some pressure on the offense to look sharper: 30-10 Washington.
Many thanks to KS4GM for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’re in the mood for a Commanders perspective on things, follow Hogs Haven at @HogsHaven. If you’re interested in my answers to KS4GM’s questions, you can find that article here.