- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2022

Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera, an NFL veteran, traditionally uses a team’s bye week to conduct a thorough review and evaluate any needed changes — no matter how big. Rivera plans to undertake that process again this week. But major changes aren’t in the mix — not when your team has won six of its last eight.

A day after tying the New York Giants, Rivera said Monday that he and his coaching staff would focus on areas in which the Commanders could be more efficient — and confirmed again for reporters that he plans to stick with Taylor Heinicke as his starter over Carson Wentz.

With the Commanders off on Sunday, Heinicke will have almost two weeks to prepare for the Dec. 18 rematch against the Giants — a game that will now be played in prime time. The NFL on Monday flexed the showdown to Sunday night — Washington’s first home Sunday night game since 2017.

Rivera said Washington is in a “good spot” with Heinicke, who has gone 5-1-1 in Wentz’s absence. In Sunday’s 20-20 tie, the signal-caller threw for 275 yards and two touchdowns. 

“(Heinicke) plays the way he plays,” Rivera said. “I just think you take the good with the bad. But I think that’s true for a lot of quarterbacks. I don’t think there’s a whole bunch of guys that are out there that aren’t making mistakes every now and then. I was pleased with the things he did and I was pleased with the way the guys played.”

Heinicke was named Washington’s new starter last month following a win over the Houston Texans, with Rivera saying that Wentz would be the backup even when fully recovered from the finger he fractured in a Week 6 win.  Despite the change, Rivera left the possibility open of turning back to Wentz, Washington’s big offseason acquisition, if the Commanders struggled. 

Heinicke and the offense were uneven in Sunday’s tie, but Rivera noted the run-first, control-the-clock identity that has fueled the Commanders’ surge with Heinicke. The Commanders are 7-5-1 on the season and are in the playoff hunt. 

Instead, the Commanders’ coaching staff will use the bye week to plan ahead and study ways they can help improve the team’s red-zone and third-down performance. Rest will also be keySeveralof key contributors got hurt in Sunday’s game against the Giants as center Tyler Larsen (leg), offensive lineman Sam Cosmi (ankle) and defensive end Montez Sweat (concussion) left and did not return. 

Rivera did not have injury updates to share on those players, but said there was a “level of concern” with Larsen’s injury. The Athletic reported that Larsen suffered a dislocated kneecap.

Washington was already without three defensive starters in cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, linebacker Cole Holcomb and defensive end Chase Young. St-Juste is dealing with a mid-to-high ankle sprain that has kept him out the last two games, while Holcomb recently underwent season-ending foot surgery.

“The extra time off is going to help an awful lot,” Rivera said.

Young’s situation, however, is more complicated. Though he returned to practice Nov. 2 and was activated to the roster Nov. 21, the 23-year-old has yet to make his season debut more than a year after tearing his ACL. When Young returns, he’ll be on a strict snap count initially. 

Rivera said the Commanders want to see Young confident in using his surgically repaired leg before returning to action. But the only way to build confidence, Rivera said the team’s doctors told him, is for Young to get out on the field —  and “now that we’re in the peak of the season, it’s one of those things that you can’t mimic what he‘s gonna get out there in the game,” the coach added. 

Rivera again stressed that Young’s knee injury was more severe than originally reported. The pass-rusher told reporters in the offseason that he had to have reconstruction surgery on his knee, a procedure that differs from a traditional ACL repair and requires a lengthier rehab.

“The way we’re playing right now — and we’re playing pretty well on the defensive front — the need to get him on the field hasn’t been that you’ve got to have him out there, we need him, it’s a must,” Rivera said. “This is one of those things that because of our guys are playing well, we can get him back when he‘s 100% ready to roll. And that’s the biggest thing. We don’t want to put him out there when he is not ready and feeling it. 

“I know he‘s close, I really do. … I’m pretty optimistic going forward for next week.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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