ATLANTA — Taylor Heinicke, over the course of his football life, has made a lot of plays most people would call “crazy.” Passes on the run. Deep bombs with defenders chasing. Escaping sacks to make a completion. At this point, it would take something truly unexpected to surprise him.
The two wild touchdown throws Heinicke pulled off on the way to a 34-30 comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday? Close.
“There’s been a lot of crazy plays throughout the years,” Heinicke said. “The one to J.D. (McKissic) and the one to Terry (McLaurin) were up there.”
In the stadium just miles from where he grew up in Georgia, Heinicke salvaged an otherwise sloppy performance for the Burgundy and Gold — hitting McKissic on an electric, cross-body throw with less than a minute left that resulted in a 30-yard go-ahead touchdown down the sideline.
The throw was just as impressive as his other fourth-quarter score: a 17-yard touchdown to McLaurin in which Heinicke kept the play alive by avoiding the defender and delivering a perfectly-placed ball, released as he was crushed on a hit.
The resulting touchdowns on both throws gave Heinicke and the Washington Football Team their second fourth-quarter comeback win of the season. In Week 2, Heinicke led a two-minute drill to set up a game-winning kick over the New York Giants.
Washington (2-2) now has two victories on the year — both of them nail-biters.
In fact, it’s fair to wonder just how off the rails Washington’s season would be if it weren’t for Heinicke. Not many saw this coming. This was supposed to be Ryan Fitzpatrick’s team, but Heinicke has stepped up in the absence of the injured Fitzpatrick, helping to cover up for a much-hyped defense that underperformed for a fourth-straight week.
“He’s got a tremendous ability to deliver,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said of Heinicke. “Hats off to him.”
Heinicke, who threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns on 23 of 33 passing, called Sunday’s victory “special.” The Georgia native estimated he had 60 to 70 people, including family and close friends, in attendance to watch in person.
Heinicke specifically said he was grateful that his sister and her husband were there, given they let the quarterback live with them last year in the months when it seemed like his football journey might be over. Heinicke was out of the NFL and was completing his degree online, not knowing what he wanted to do with his life.
But Heinicke’s football journey now seems far from over — especially if he keeps performing as he did against the Falcons.
On Sunday, he bailed out a defense that had Washington playing catch-up most of the afternoon. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (283 yards) diced through the team’s secondary, finding running back Cordarrelle Patterson for three of his four touchdown passes. Heinicke also helped Washington weather a number of injuries and two missed extra points from kicker Dustin Hopkins.
The defensive problems for Washington were much of the same. The team again had trouble getting off the field — allowing the Falcons to convert 10 of their 16 third downs. There were coverage busts, like when safety Bobby McCain bit on a crossing route and freed up Patterson running deep for 42 yards and a score. And there were a number of missed tackles, including four on a Mike Davis’ 7-yard touchdown that gave the Falcons a 30-22 lead with 15 minutes left.
The performance seemed to left Rivera and some of his defensive stalwarts unsatisfied. Rivera said he was appreciative of the win, but noted the number of third-down conversions. Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said the unit still wasn’t meeting its own standards. Defensive end Chase Young, still without a sack, said simply: “We can be better.”
“Defensively, we’ll get it together,” McCain said. “We meet and we’re going to figure out the details, and when we start balling and we start playing our (butts) off, I want (the media) to write the same (stuff) that y’all write.”
The defense, as in the Giants game, made stops when it mattered. Against the Falcons, the unit forced a three and out that led to McLaurin’s score. And after McKissic’s touchdown, Washington batted away a last-ditch Ryan throw in the end zone to hold on.
Still, Heinicke’s performance was more than needed. This is not like last year for Washington, when the team often won on the strength of its defense.
Instead, Washington has found itself relying on the improvisational skill of its unexpected quarterback. Heinicke’s game-winning throw to McKissic? The quarterback said the running back was his fifth option: Heinicke scrambled and scrambled until he threw across his body and hit McKissic. The running back then dove headfirst across the pylon.
“Taylor made eye contact with me,” McKissic said, “and I knew he was about to sling it.”