- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2021

ATLANTA — Taylor Heinicke got his chance.

Playing in Georgia, not far from his hometown, the Washington quarterback had the opportunity to lead his team on a potential game-winning drive with less than two minutes left. 

And boy, did he deliver. 

Heinicke hit running back J.D. McKissic on a remarkable cross-body throw that resulted in a game-winning, 30-yard touchdown in Sunday’s 34-30 victory for the Washington Football Team over the Atlanta Falcons. The 28-year-old quarterback salvaged what was otherwise a sloppy performance for Washington, as the defense struggled again for the fourth straight outing. 

Heinicke, who grew up in suburban Atlanta, threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns on 23 of 33 passing. He hit McKissic for the go-ahead score with 46 seconds left. It was the second game-winning drive of the season for Heinicke, who also led Washington to a win in Week 2 over the New York Giants. 

Washington’s defense, meanwhile, did manage to make a stop when it mattered. The unit prevented quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense from scoring on the final possession.

Until then, Ryan largely had his way with Washington — throwing for 283 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Cordarrelle Patterson had three of those four scores.

But Washington held on, climbing back to .500 (2-2) with the New Orleans Saints now on deck. 

For Washington, the big question heading into Sunday’s game centered on how the defense would respond to its poor start to the season. The unit, top-five last year, has not lived up to expectations this season, ranking among the league’s worst statistically. “It starts with me,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said, saying there was still time for mistakes to be corrected.

Before kick-off, defensive end Chase Young, too, offered a message in the pre-game huddle: “Do your job,” he told teammates. In a video posted to the team’s social media account, the second-year pass rusher pleaded for them to hold each other accountable. 

The speech didn’t seem to help much, though.

On the Falcons’ opening drive, Atlanta moved the ball on a lengthy 15-play, 68-yard drive, mixing play-action and short passes to move the chains. Washington’s defense managed to make a stop — avoiding its fourth straight opening-drive touchdown — though Atlanta’s field goal marked the first time this season the Falcons’ scored on an opening drive.

Washington’s offense took a significant hit early on when tight end Logan Thomas suffered a hamstring injury. Thomas, one of the team’s most reliable players in 2020, came limping off the field and went straight to the trainer’s table to be further evaluated. It wasn’t long until Thomas was ruled out for the game.

With Matt Ryan carving up the Burgundy-and-Gold secondary, it became clear that Washington was going to have to pick up the pace offensively.

On Atlanta’s third possession, Ryan found a wide-open Patterson for a 42-yard touchdown to take a 10-0 lead.  Safety Bobby McCain, in particular, looked to be responsible for the coverage breakdown as he bit hard on a route in the middle of the field  — causing Patterson to spring free once he outran cornerback William Jackson III.

Heinicke, however, was up to the challenge of keeping Washington in the game. Using his legs, the quarterback scrambled to extend plays and keep drives alive. Heinicke responded to Atlanta‘s touchdown with a 33-yard scoring strike to Terry McLaurin.

After a rare forced three-and-out, Washington got the ball back and managed to take the lead. Running back Antonio Gibson punched it in for a 2-yard touchdown — but even that score was overshadowed by a mistake. Kicker Dustin Hopkins missed the extra point.

The lead wouldn’t last. The Falcons perfectly executed the two-minute drill — leading to Patterson’s second touchdown, this time the result of a 12-yard Ryan pass.

With the Falcons ahead 17-13 at halftime, Washington seized the lead coming out of the locker room when returner DeAndre Carter ran back the kickoff for 101 yards — only for Hopkins to miss the ensuing PAT. Again.

Still, Washington was unable to make a stop that truly changed the contest. Ryan led an eight-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown to Patterson — his third score. Then,  after Washington narrowed the deficit to just one (23-22) with a 21-yard field goal, the Falcons went 83 yards down the field over 13 plays that led to a 7-yard touchdown pass to running back Mike Davis.

Even with the defensive shortcomings, Washington’s offense didn’t quit. Down eight, Heinicke made a remarkable play when the quarterback hit McLaurin for a 17-yard touchdown — despite the Falcons dragging down Heinicke in the process of the throw. Heinicke just got the ball out in time and McLaurin hauled it in. 

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