Giants vs. Washington Football Team: What to expect when Washington has the ball?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Giants’ defense continue to stifle the Washington offense?

And just like that Week 2 of the 2021 NFL season, and the New York Giants first divisional game of the year, is here. The Giants will travel to play the Washington Football Team this week on Thursday Night Football.

Washington was the winner of the NFC East a year ago, and are looking to improve on their 7-9 win total

(Or perhaps considering the state of the NFCE in 2020, it’s more accurate that they were the team that failed to lose the division.)

Last year Washington was carried to the division crown on the back of an absolutely ferocious pass rush. Of course, last year Washington was beset by a variety of issues throughout the season. Quarterback Kyle Allen suffered a scary leg injury in almost the exact same spot on the field as Alex Smith, and the team also dealt with inconsistent offensive line play — as well as other issues.

The Giants swept Washington a year ago, but both games were close and the Giants won by a combined 4 points. The Football Team has made investments into their offense, but was it enough to make up ground on the Giants’ defense?

What can the Giants look forward to when Washington has the ball?

Who is Taylor Heinicke?

Perhaps the biggest storyline leading into the Giants’ game against the Washington Football Team is the injury to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and backup Taylor Heinicke getting the start.

And the biggest question for Giants fans leading up to the game should be “who is Taylor Heinicke?”

We got to see a little more than half a game of Heinicke against the Los Angeles Chargers, and that is just not a lot to go on. Fortunately, that wasn’t the extent of Heinicke’s film. He also started Washington’s playoff game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A game and a half still isn’t a lot to go on, and that could be an issue for the Giants’ preparation on a short week, a game and a half against a good defense and one of the best defenses in the NFL can reveal some things.

The first and most obvious aspect of Heinicke’s game is that he isn’t overwhelmed. Despite starting a playoff game against an NFL legend and a rabid defense, as well as coming off the bench on short notice, Heinicke looked like he belonged on an NFL field. He rarely — if ever — appeared flustered by pressure and was typically composed in the backfield. Heinicke showed good field awareness and feel in the pocket, adjusting to pressure while moving through his reads. He was generally able to find his open receivers or move to his check-down when nothing was there.

Heinicke’s accuracy numbers weren’t spectacular in the games I watched. He completed 11 of 15 passes against the Chargers (the small sample size should be noted), but only completed 26 of 44 (59 percent) attempts in a playoff game last season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Heinecke appears to be a more accurate passer than that number vs. the Bucs would suggest. He generally places the ball safely, where only his receiver can make a play. Heinicke has definite arm talent, with the ability to generate power and launch the ball downfield with relative ease and from multiple arm slots. But interestingly, he also takes juice off the ball when throwing short and doesn’t just rely on his fastball, which helps to make his passes more catchable and accurate.

Heinicke shows solid trust in his receivers, and is willing to give them a chance to make plays down the field. He doesn’t seem to lock on to any one receiver, nor does he play favorites. He spreads the ball around well and his favorite receiver seems to be whichever one is open.

He is also an impressive athlete with the ball in his hands. Heinicke reportedly ran a 4.56 second 40-yard dash coming out of college, and shows quick feet in the backfield. Washington’s offensive line struggled with Joey Bosa (more on that in a bit), but Heinicke was generally able to avoid pressure and outrun defensive linemen. He also showed a willingness to use his legs to pick up first downs and keep drives alive. Defenses don’t seem to expect his speed in the open field, which lead to a rushing touchdown against Tampa Bay.

Heinicke is also willing and able to play “sandlot football” if nothing is open downfield. The Giants struggled to when Teddy Bridgewater went off-script, and Heinicke shows some of the same ability. This play against the Chargers stood out, with Heinicke set to run only to see Terry McLaurin work free. The result is what I can only describe as a middle school gym class basketball chest pass to McLaurin.

Heinicke might not be an established starter, but it might be a mistake to overlook him as just a journeyman JAG back-up. He has positive traits that stood out on film, and he could be the type of quarterback a team can win with, if not necessarily because of.

A solid offensive line. Mostly.

Washington was aggressive in remaking its offensive line over the course of the 2021 offseason. They signed Charles Leno to play left tackle, released right tackle Morgan Moses and drafted Samuel Cosmi out of Texas, as well as traded for Ereck Flowers.

Leno is a definite upgrade over swing tackle Cornelius Lucas at left tackle, and the duo of Chase Roullier at center and Brandon Scherff at right guard remains stout. The big questions on this offensive line are at left guard and right tackle. The Giants’ old friend Flowers seems likely to start at left guard, though Wes Schweitzer could also get the start. The guard position seems to agree with Flowers, allowing him to use his size and power to his advantage without having to worry as much about footwork. Flowers still shows a slight tendency to drop his head when initiating contact, but it isn’t as severe as it was when he was playing tackle. Likewise, he seems better able to sync up his hands and feet without having as much ground to cover.

All told, Washington’s offensive line is a capable run blocking unit. Collectively, they’re both powerful and athletic, and their offensive scheme calls a variety of running plays. Washington makes use of both inside and outside zone, as well as man-gap principles in their running plays, and they generally created a good push against the Los Angeles defensive front.

The weakest link on the offensive line is rookie right tackle Sam Cosmi, who understandably struggled against All-Pro edge defender Joey Bosa. Cosmi has a prototypical build with evident athleticism, but his footwork needs work. I noted a tendency in his college tape to shuffle and almost jog, rather than kick-slide, into his pass sets and that still remains in his game. He has all the athleticism necessary to hang on an island in pass protection at the NFL level, but speed off the edge can get his feet crossed up. Granted, there are few NFL tackles who won’t have issues against Joey Bosa, but Azeez Ojulari’s burst off the line of scrimmage could give him the edge against his fellow rookie.

Don’t underestimate the skill positions

Washington’s offense is somewhat notable for its lack of star power on offense. They don’t have any skill position players who are really even close to being “household names”. However, they have a good variety of play makers.

The Giants caught a definite break with the injury to wide receiver Curtis Samuel. Samuel came to Washington after improving every year at Carolina and having a career year in 2020. The duo of Samuel and Terry McLaurin would have given Washington a dynamic set of options who could win at all levels of the field and would be an absolute nightmare in run after catch situations. Fortunately for the Giants, Samuel was placed on the injured reserve just before the season after aggravating a groin injury.

But still, neither the Giants nor we should underestimate Washington’s remaining skill position players.

McLaurin is a dangerous receiver who can both win deep as well as turn almost any routine catch into a big gain. He’s quick, fast, a good route runner, and simply excellent at tracking the ball down the field. McLaurin has been overshadowed by other receivers since entering the NFL in 2019, but he has quickly emerged as a bona fide threat as a pass catcher.

He’s joined by tight end Logan Thomas and running back Antonio Gibson to round out Washington’s starting offense. Thomas has completed the transformation from quarterback to tight end and has emerged as one of the better playmaking tight ends in the NFL. He is big, athletic, has soft hands and a knack for finding voids in coverage. And considering the Giants’ perennial issues with defending athletic tight ends, Thomas could be a problem. He became an integral part of Washington’s passing offense a year ago, seeing 110 targets, catching 72 for 670 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Giants fans (and the Giants themselves) should also be aware of Cam Sims and rookie Dyami Brown. Sims is a big (6-foot-5, 220-pound) receiver who caught Ryan Fitzpatrick’s eye over the summer and could be a threat in short-yardage and goal line situations. Brown is neither big nor particularly athletic. However, he was a dangerous deep threat for North Carolina over his last two seasons. He averaged 20 yards per catch in each of those years and scored every 5.3 receptions, showing good release skills as well as the ability to separate downfield.

There’s also the matter of dealing with running backs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. Gibson has become Washington’s “bell cow” back, and at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds with 4.39 speed and great contact balance to go with good vision, he can be a problem for defenses. Gibson is able to run both between the tackles and outside, and has a great feel for when holes will develop — as well as the burst to exploit him. He’s strong and doesn’t go down easily, which means the Giants will need to wrap up and rally to the ball to limit yards after contact. Gibson is also a capable receiving back, picking up 3 receptions last week to go with 36 last season.

But despite Gibson’s ability to catch the ball, J.D. McKissic is the Football Team’s receiving back.

He was only targeted once against the Chargers, but he caught an incredible 80 passes on 110 targets a year ago. Washington will, at times, put both backs on the field in a split backfield, motioning one at the snap to force the defense to either defend the run or the pass.

While none of these skill position players are truly “stars,” Washington has found enough talent to give them both depth and variety of skill sets.

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