Commanders Struggle vs. Giants to find answers for red zone failures

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In the Washington Commanders’ locker room, as players dissected the devastating loss, those on returned again and again to struggles in the red zone. Wide receiver Jahan Dotson captured the frustration by saying: “We drove the entire field to [not convert]. … It’s unacceptable.” In his postgame news conference, Coach Ron Rivera said that, during the bye week, coaches had discussed the red zone as “something we had to be better at.”

“We didn’t do that,” he said, adding that if the Commanders hadn’t stalled out just outside the red zone in the first quarter, and if they hadn’t fumbled at the New York Giants’ 5-yard line late in the fourth, the last series with questionable officiating “wouldn’t matter.”

In the 20-12 loss Sunday night, Washington went 1 for 3 in the red zone, the lone score a 19-yard touchdown to Dotson. It’s obvious the offense has foundational weaknesses — it’s averaging 18.8 points while led by quarterback Taylor Heinicke, which would rank 22nd in the NFL over the full season — and there are plenty of questions worth asking. Is this primarily on the play-calling of offensive coordinator Scott Turner, or is he limited by his quarterback and offensive line? How much blame does the front office deserve for building a poor pass-blocking line?

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But it’s now Week 16. It’s too late to significantly address those problems, and this appears to be the offense on which Washington will bet its season. Sunday was more or less a rerun of every Heinicke performance, yo-yoing between massive miscues and inexplicable brilliance, which means coaches will have to look at the margins for improvement. The most glaring problem there is the red zone.

Washington has struggled there all year, regardless of its quarterback. But it has mattered more since Heinicke became the starter because the inexplosive, run-first offense has had to rely on lengthy drives, which lowers scoring, which narrows the team’s margin for error. Under Heinicke, Washington has had 23 red-zone drives, tied for 20th in the NFL, and scored a touchdown just 47.8 percent of the time, which ranks 25th.

In the past, players and coaches have blamed the woes on a variety of factors, including penalties and ineffective plays on early downs. They’ve never complained about one-dimensional play-calling — Turner calls 48 percent runs in the red zone and 52 percent passes — and they’ve never suggested Heinicke struggles to zip passes into tighter windows, though it seems to be a factor. In a recent column for the website the 33rd TeamHall of Fame executive Bill Polian wrote that the Commanders “strangely … do not run well in the red zone.”

On Sunday night, several players said the team had a number of problems in the red zone, but each of them independently listed a common culprit at the top of the list.

“We just got to communicate better,” tight end Logan Thomas said.

“Miscommunication,” right tackle Cornelius Lucas said, adding, “Ten people being on the same page and one person not.”

“Everybody got to be on the same page,” wide receiver Curtis Samuel said.

“Guys just aren’t focused,” running back Brian Robinson Jr. said.

But each player demurred when asked to provide an example.

“There’s no point in trying to put the blame on anybody,” Samuel said. “We just got to execute.”

One specific area Washington could improve: inside what’s known as the low red zone. Cody Alexander, a football coach who writes a newsletter called Match Quarters, breaks the red zone into three parts: high (25-yard line to 15), low (14 to 5) and goal line (4 to end zone). And one troubling trend that continued Sunday night was the closer Washington got to the goal line, the worse it was.

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In the high red zone this season, Washington has gained a first down or scored a touchdown on 34.1 percent of its plays, the sixth-best rate in the NFL. In the low red zone, that figure drops to 23.3 percent, the sixth-worst rate in the league. At the goal line, it’s slightly worse.

The biggest culprits for the discrepancy appear to be Heinicke and Turner. In the high red zone, Turner’s tendency to remain about 50-50 run-passes seems advantageous because Washington is effective running and Heinicke is about league average passing, completing 10 of 16 passes (62.5 percent) for three touchdowns and no interceptions.

But inside the low red zone, Turner’s balance seems to hurt the offense. Because even though Washington still runs the ball pretty well, Heinicke collapses.

Inside the low red zone, Heinicke has completed just 8 of 24 attempts (33.3 percent). It is the lowest mark in the NFL by nearly 10 percent. Since 2000, out of 752 qualified quarterback seasons, Heinicke’s completion percentage this year is tied for 727th.

In the most critical situations, it’s even worse. On third and fourth down, Heinicke has completed 1 of 11 passes (9.1 percent). Since 2000, the only quarterback to attempt double-digit passes inside the low red zone and have a worse completion percentage was Chicago Bears rookie Justin Fields in 2021 (0 for 10).

The second half Sunday was a perfect distillation of the divide between the red zones.

On the first drive, Heinicke marched 91 yards without facing a second down, and he hit Dotson for a touchdown from the high red zone. In each of the last two drives, Heinicke struggled passing in the low red zone. In the first of the two, Heinicke dropped back to throw on third and four, saw no one open and tried to take off, only to fumble.

On the final drive, the Commanders had only one timeout, and Turner dropped Heinicke back to pass on four straight plays. The only positive gain was a nine-yard scramble. On the last play of the drive, Heinicke couldn’t hit Samuel in the back left corner of the end zone.

In his postgame news conference, Heinicke was frustrated. He said the team needed to be better in the high red zone — “Let’s make things happen instead of going backwards or stalling out” — and said it was a main reason the team entered halftime trailing.

In the locker room, Heinicke’s teammates were similarly exasperated. Samuel was asked what needs to change in the red zone.

“Positive yardage,” he said. “Completed passes, good runs. Anything that’s moving the team toward getting six. We ain’t doing that right now.”

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