ATLANTA — Taylor Heinicke faked a handoff, turned and encountered a dangerous situation on Sunday: a free rusher coming right at him. Then the Washington Football Team quarterback did what he does best: He improvised. He stepped right, was spun around by the defender, stepped to his left and lofted a high toss into the end zone as another defender drilled him.
The bloop throw was caught for a touchdown by receiver Terry McLaurin in Washington’s 34-30 win against the Atlanta Falcons. It was yet another example of how Heinicke can overcome his flaws. He can run, he can extend plays and he can get out of situations most could not.
There’s a reason he’s only been sacked three times in 118 pass attempts. The elusiveness provides Washington another weapon on offense, which it needed in Sunday.
“That’s an advantage for us,” McLaurin said in an understatement.
“It’s a good part of my game,” Heinicke said in another understatement.
It’s not as if Heinicke simply runs around all the time; he only does it when needed. He’s run the ball 20 times for 87 yards — good but hardly Lamar Jackson. Heinicke did run the ball five times for 43 yards on Sunday, including a 20-yarder when he picked up a first down inside Atlanta’s 5-yard line. Washington coach Ron Rivera said that could become a bigger headache for defenses.
If a team plays man coverage, as Atlanta did on a handful of occasions, it might help against the receivers but it leaves gaps. With receiver Curtis Samuel back in the lineup, cornerbacks have to play for the deep ball so that leaves teams susceptible to big plays if the quarterback runs.
“You got to honor those guys and I think that also helps,” Rivera said. “It’s going to make things more difficult on paper.”
Heinicke’s ability to elude the rush has always been part of his game, dating to high school — which he attended 45 minutes from Atlanta. On the play before the pass to McLaurin, Heinicke had also escaped trouble. A blitz led to interior pressure on this third-and-9 and forced Heinicke to his right. Before another defender could get to him he stopped and hit running back J.D. McKissic for a first down.
“Throughout the years, high school and college, there’s been some bizarre plays so, you know, things like that happen. It’s a lot of fun, it’s really cool, but I feel like I’ve kind of been doing that, those type of plays throughout my life and I think that’s kind of the player I am. Again, I grew up watching Brett Favre, so I saw a lot of crazy stuff from him, so it’s a good part of my game.”
On the game-winning pass to McKissic, Heinicke wasn’t under duress, but he did slide to his left against a three-man rush. Then he stopped, spotted McKissic on the other side of the field and hit him. The running back did the rest on a 30-yard run.
“Even when he’s scrambling around, his eyes stay downfield,” McLaurin said. “He knows that he could give us opportunities to make plays down the field as well. Can’t say enough about him, the way he extends plays, the way he gives us a chance one each and every play. It’s like, no play’s ever dead when Taylor’s back there.”
Washington’s 2-2 start hasn’t been smooth as the defense continues to struggle. But for a team that lost its starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, in the first half of Week 1, Heinicke has certainly provided more than just a spark. He’s now led two game-winning drives in the past three weeks. Sunday’s comeback occurred one week after his first bad game in Washington, a two-interception day in a loss at Buffalo.
On Sunday, he completed 23 of 33 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns. He’s provided the team hope that the season won’t be lost. His poise and accurate arm help; his legs provide another way to energize his teammates. It’s what happened on an 8-yard touchdown run against Tampa Bay in the postseason last year, culminating in a dive at the pylon.
“You never know what you’re going to get back there with Taylor,” Washington receiver DeAndre Carter said. “He’s going to run around, he’s going to make plays. We just try to get in there, you know, on the scramble drill, try to be open and be an available target for him when he was ready to throw.”