- The Washington Times
Sunday, October 24, 2021

GREEN BAY, Wis. — As a Green Bay Packers fan growing up, Taylor Heinicke always dreamed of doing the Lambeau Leap — the team’s signature touchdown celebration. So when the Washington quarterback ran into the end zone Sunday, he seized the moment and jumped into the arms of a fan wearing Washington gear — drawing a chorus of boos from the rest of the crowd.

There was only one problem: The touchdown, in this case, wasn’t a touchdown at all.

Officials determined on replay that Heinicke “gave himself up” — ruling his knee made contact with the ground despite no one touching him — one yard short of the score. Then, on the following play ­— fourth down — he failed to get in.

Scoring opportunity squandered.

“I will say this: It’s a lot tougher getting up there than it looks on TV,” Heinicke said. “I was kind of scared halfway going up. It was a cool experience, but unfortunately, it didn’t count.”

That botched sequence was the low point of Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. On an afternoon when the offense moved the ball and the defense had arguably its best showing of the season, Heinicke and his unit stalled one too many times to pull off the upset against one of the NFL’s premier teams.

Here’s how frustrating it was for the Burgundy and Gold (2-5) in Green Bay: Washington’s offense reached Packers territory eight times in 10 possessions — and scored only 10 points. The sequences inside Green Bay territory that didn’t result in points included: A blocked kick, three turnovers on downs, an interception and time expiring. The team was 0-for-4 in the red zone.

Not good enough against a 6-1 Packers team with Aaron Rodgers, the reigning MVP, at quarterback. The 37-year-old threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns.

Rodgers, in particular, seized on mistakes, like when he found tight end Robert Tonyan for a 20-yard touchdown just three plays after Heinicke’s strip-sacked fumble at Washington’s 29-yard line to start the third quarter.

Heinicke’s final stat line was respectable enough: Twenty-five of 37 passes for 268 yards, a touchdown and an interception. But for the third straight week, Heinicke’s mistakes overshadowed positives. Namely, Heinicke’s inability to convert in the red zone is not only costing the team points — he’s also showing the limitations that come with relying on a player often thought of as a backup.

As a team, Washington hasn’t scored a touchdown in the red zone since Week 5 when running back Antonio Gibson carried it in from one yard out against the New Orleans Saints. Heinicke hasn’t thrown a red-zone touchdown since Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons (Oct. 3).

Coincidentally, the latter was Washington’s last win.

“We need to find ways to finish drives as an offense,” center Chase Roullier said. “We’re leaving a lot of points out there on the field. It’s something that we’re all frustrated with. It’s something that we all want to change. We need to figure it out.”

Washington coach Ron Rivera said he doesn’t put all the blame on Heinicke, noting the offense has 10 other players on the field. And to be fair, he’s right. Terry McLaurin, for instance, took the blame for a drop in the end zone on third-and-2 in the third quarter that would have made it a one-score game. Instead, Washington turned it over on downs.

The game might have been different, too, if either of Heinicke’s rushes resulted in touchdowns. Heinicke and Rivera disagreed with the rulings on the plays that spoiled Heinicke’s Lambeau Leap. Heinicke said he was diving, not giving himself up, for the end zone. And for the fourth-and-goal stop,

Rivera said he felt Heinicke wasn’t actually down in the pile and crossed the pylon. Rivera, after challenging the call, said he was told the video evidence was inconclusive.

Still, Washington was facing a depleted Packers’ defense. Green Bay was missing its top two cornerbacks in Jaire Alexander (shoulder) and Kevin King (shoulder), as well as a pass rusher in former Washington second-rounder Preston Smith. Through the Packers’ first six games, Green Bay had allowed 15 red zone touchdowns — on 15 trips.

The poor showing in the end zone marked the latest instance in which Heinicke and the offense couldn’t take advantage of a team’s weakness. Heinicke and his receivers had trouble exploiting a poor Chiefs secondary last week, as well.  

“I thought I played well but I had a strip-sack in the first series of the second half and that interception in the end zone,” Heinicke said. “It was little things like that. I feel we don’t do that and, a couple calls go differently, we’re right there in it.”

Heinicke had his moments. On Washington’s opening drive, he found an open McLaurin for a 40-yard touchdown. He also extended plays with his legs, rushing for a season-high 95 yards on 10 attempts. That was encouraging for Washington after Heinicke was held to zero rushing yards last week.

But the margin for error — especially against a team like the Packers — was slim. That’s why Rivera took an aggressive approach in Sunday’s contest, going for it on fourth down four times. In the process, he even passed up a 46-yard field goal attempt when the game was still tied at 7.

Perhaps his decision was made easier by the fact that new kicker Chris Blewitt, who went 1-of-2 in replacing Dustin Hopkins, had a 42-yarder blocked earlier in the game. But the go-for-it call was a reflection that Rivera knew they needed to take chances to pull off an upset.

The result of the play? Heinicke targeted McLaurin on fourth-and-3 — incomplete.

“It was disappointing,” Rivera said. “We had opportunities and we just didn’t convert when we had a chance.”

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

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