The New York Giants will play the first of two games against the Washington Commanders in Week 13. The Giants (7-4) will play the Commanders (7-5) twice in the next three weeks, in a stretch of games that could define the NFC playoff picture.
This game looked like an easy win about a month ago, with Washington adrift after a 2-4 start to the season, while the Giants were rolling with a 6-1 start. However, the NFL can be weird and unpredictable, and it turned out the forced ascension of Taylor Heinicke helped turn the Commanders’ season around. Washington has won five of their last six games and are in playoff contention.
What can the Giants’ defense expect from Washington’s offense at home?
The Taylor Heinicke show?
There was a hope (at least around Washington) that the team had finally found it’s quarterback when they traded with the Indianapolis Colts for Carson Wentz. Those hopes quickly faded when the Commanders started the season with a dismal 1-4 record, which only seemed to get worse when Wentz broke a finger on his throwing hand in a win over the Chicago Bears.
The injury brought Taylor Heinicke back onto the field after he was supplanted by Wentz. But then something weird happened and the Heinicke led Commanders started winning.
The box score suggest that Wentz is obviously the better option at quarterback. Wentz has a better completion percentage, has thrown for more yards, and has a better touchdown to interception ratio. So why would Washington stick with Heinicke as their starting quarterback?
Wins might not be a quarterback stat, but the stark difference in the team’s winning percentage with each passer is pretty demonstrative. While Washington was 2-4 with Wentz starting, they’re 5-1 with Heinicke and teams seldom want to mess with a winning formula.
So what does Heinicke bring to the table?
To start with, he’s a remarkably competitive quarterback. He’s a willing blocker for his teammates and even celebrates roughing the passer penalties because they give his team a new set of downs.
Overall, Washington is another team (much like Seattle, the Texans, and the Lions) who field an offense that’s broadly similar to what the Giants use under Kafka and Daboll. The Commanders’ offense is heavily predicated on using misdirection and play-action in their passing game. Interestingly, the Washington offense doesn’t go out of its way to “protect” Heinicke as a passer. He seems to have the green light to be aggressive and look down the field, with an intended air yardage that’s just outside of the Top-10, and he routinely throws past the first down marker (Surprisingly, only seven quarterbacks in the NFL do so).
Heinicke has a strong rapport with his receivers, and shows the ability to throw with touch, timing, and anticipation. He’s willing to trust his arm and give his receivers a chance to make a play. He’s able to attack all areas of the field, place the ball where only his receiver can make a play on it, and set his receivers up for yards after the catch.
Heinicke isn’t without his faults — if he were, Washington never would have traded for Wentz. His confidence, aggressiveness, and faith in his receivers, combined with something of a tendency to lock onto targets, has lead to interceptions. He’s willing to test tight coverage and lapses in eye discipline can lead defenders to the ball.
However, it also leads to big plays down the field to counterbalance a power running game.
The Giants have struggled to prevent explosive plays through the air this year. As against the Cowboys and Seahawks, the Giants will rely on their pressure packages and aggressive coverage to disrupt Heinicke. While the Giants are getting healthier, their secondary is still depleted, and the defense’s best bet is to disrupt Heinicke enough that he isn’t able to collect on those chunk play opportunities.
Slowing down Scary Terry (and company)
The Giants’ depleted secondary had mixed day against the Dallas Cowboys’ receivers on Thanksgiving. The Giants’ DBs plays about as well as could be expected, coming away with a pair of interceptions and didn’t allow much separation. However, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup also played excellent games with several incredible catches. Ultimately, they were just too much for the Giants’ secondary.
Washington has a very good receiving corps in their own right, albeit with a very different type of receiver than Lamb and Gallup.
Terry McLaurin has been a thorn in the Giants’ side since being drafted and is dangerous at all areas of the field. He has the quickness and route running acumen to be dangerous on quick passes, as well as the speed, body control, and physicality to be a good deep receiver as well. He’s paired with Curtis Samuel, a running back turned receiver who does double-duty for the Commanders. Samuel is a tough runner who’s dangerous with the ball in his hands, whether he takes a hand-off in the backfield or in run-after-catch situations.
Finally there’s rookie Jahan Dotson. While the rookie from Penn State hasn’t racked up stats (yet), he got off to a hot start, scoring four touchdowns in the first four games of the season. He cooled off after a hamstring injury cost him a month, and he’s still in the process of working his way back into the offensive mix. Dotson came out of Penn State with a reputation as a quick, twitchy athlete as well as a savvy route runner.
Taken as a whole, the Commanders rely on (relatively) undersized receivers who are both quick and fast.
Washington’s offensive scheme makes frequent use of play-action bootlegs with layered routes (similar to the Giants). That plays to their receivers crisp route running, speed across the field, and acceleration to turn upfield after the catch. They also make frequent use of deep out or crossing routes paired with post, corner, or go routes. Defenses are forced to respect both Washington’s running game (more on that in a bit), as well as the deep speed of their receiving corps.
The Giants’ defensive backs were able to stay with Dallas’ receivers (for the most part), but the speed and quickness of the Washington receivers will pose a markedly different threat.
It’s also worth noting that tight end Logan Thomas is back healthy and Washington uses running back JD McKissic as a receiver out of the backfield. The Giants have consistently struggled with good receiving tight ends and Thomas has been a problem for the Giants’ linebackers before. Likewise, the Giants have been vulnerable to athletic runners this year as well.
Explosive plays off play-action
Washington has reworked their offense over their recent winning streak and have leaned into their running game.
One of the catalysts for their turnaround has been the return of rookie RB Brian Robinson Jr. from the injured reserve. Robinson first took the field back in Week 5 after his rookie debut was put on hold when he was shot twice in the leg in an attempted robbery. Robinson is a big, powerful, bruising runner who Washington uses to punish defenses. He’s a nice compliment to Antonio Gibson, who has good size as well as open-field speed.
Robinson is coming off of his first 100-yard game and fits well within Washington’s varied rushing attack. The Commanders are primarily a zone blocking team, but within that scheme they use both inside and outside zone, counter runs, pin-and-pull concepts, and toss plays — among other concepts. They also make heavy use of misdirection and jet motion in their running plays, making it very difficult for defenses to follow the ball in the backfield.
Washington’s offensive line is very good at selling their run blocks, making their play-action that much more effective. As mentioned before, the Commanders make frequent use of play-action to attack deep to take advantage of their receivers as well as defenses stepping up to defend the run. It also takes advantage of the chemistry that Heinicke has with his receivers.
The Giants have struggled to consistently defend the run this year. They’ve been stout up the middle, but the edges of their defense have been vulnerable. The Giants will likely be stout on runs up the middle, but they could be vulnerable to Washington’s outside zone plays, as well as play-action off of those plays. How the Giants’ scheme to account for Robinson and Gibson on the ground, as well as the play-action passes, could go a long way in determining the outcome of the game.