Commanders rout lowly Texans behind dominant defense, Taylor Heinicke

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correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Commanders had no takeaways in their first five games. They had one. The story has been corrected.

HOUSTON — If there was still any doubt after the Washington Commanders’ defining win in Philadelphia, they quickly quashed it Sunday: The legend of Taylor Heinicke will live on.

The 29-year-old secured his role as the starting quarterback going forward by guiding Washington to a 23-10 rubbing of the lowly Houston Texans just six days after the Commanders upset the unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles on “Monday Night Football.”

“We’re going to go with Taylor,” Coach Ron Rivera said after the game, confirming the obvious. Carson Wentz, the Washington veteran traded for in March, will continue to rehab his fractured finger and work his way back onto the roster — probably as Heinicke’s backup.

The decision had many factors, but none was bigger than this: Heinicke is winning.

The Commanders’ victory put them above .500, at 6-5, for the first time since they won the season opener. Heinicke finished 15 for 27 for 191 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions (Houston dropped two potential picks) for a 77.9 passer rating — a middling stat line that was more than enough against the woeful Texans (1-8-1) thanks to a dominant showing by the defence.

Takeaways and analysis from Sunday’s win

Since Week 7, when Heinicke took over for the injured Wentz, he has guided Washington to a 4-1 record, with its lone loss a narrow one against the Minnesota Vikings. The Commanders defeated the Green Bay Packers at home, then handed losses to Indianapolis, Philadelphia and now Houston on the road.

And Heinicke, who became a fan favorite two years ago after a stint as the team’s “quarantine quarterback,” again has rejuvenated Washington’s offense, using his mobility and improved decision-making to get his playmakers involved and settle the offensive line. All the while, the defense continued to impress, marrying a suffocating pass rush and rush defense with a turnover-happy secondary.

“[Alabama Coach Nick] Saban used to always say that the team decides the starting quarterback,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “Every time [Heinicke] comes in to play, the team just rallies around him.”

The Commanders racked up 153 rushing yards while limiting the Texans to 148 yards of total offense — including just five in the first half. Washington had 20 first downs to Houston’s 11 and amassed five sacks and two interceptions of Davis Mills.

Cornerback Kendall Fuller jumped a short pass on the Texans’ opening drive and ran it back 37 yards for a touchdown, the first of his career. Safety Darrick Forrest, who seemingly is making a weekly tradition of acrobatic interceptions, snagged another in the fourth quarter after cornerback Benjamin St-Juste tipped a deep pass.

“Kendall sets the tone for the game [and] got in the end zone,” Forrest said. “[I] need him to start celebrating, but, hey, he turned us up, for sure.”

Buckner: The Commanders are cruising. Forget the details and just enjoy it.

Washington has six takeaways in its past two games, a sharp turnaround after notching just one in its first five. And its line now features three players — Allen (6.5) and fellow tackle Daron Payne (6.5) as well as end Montez Sweat (six) — with a half-dozen sacks.

The defense impressed in the second half, too, but Washington fell short of its first shutout since 1991. Houston kicked a field goal early in the third quarter and got a garbage-time touchdown run from Mills in the fourth.

But the victory was sound. For the first time in a while, the Commanders are playing complementary football, with all three phases contributing. And they picked up where they left off in Philadelphia, relying heavily on the running game to extend drives and open up chunk plays in the passing game.

“There’s some really cool stuff going on right now as this team’s starting to grow,” Rivera said.

After Fuller’s early score, Washington embarked on four scoring drives, all of them lasting at least nine plays. In the second quarter, wide receiver Curtis Samuel capped a nine-play drive with a 10-yard touchdown run on a jet sweep to make it 14-0.

Finishing drives remains an issue. The Commanders, who went 3 for 13 on third down, settled for field goals twice in the quarter — Joey Slye connected from 25 and 24 yards — after reaching Houston’s red zone.

But the defense kept contributing. After Samuel’s touchdown, the defense got off the field in less than 90 seconds, sacking Mills on back-to-back plays to give the ball back to Heinicke. He quickly went to work, finding tight end Logan Thomas (five catches, 65 yards) for a 19-yard completion up the middle before turning back to his rushers. Antonio Gibson (72 yards on 18 carries) broke off a 13-yard run and later added an 18-yard catch before the drive stalled and Slye expanded Washington’s lead to 17-0.

“This is a team you want to be a quarterback for, for sure, with all those weapons we got, the offensive line playing the way they are right now and the defense we have,” Heinicke said. “And then, heck, if you go three-and-out, you have [punter Tress Way] bombing on the other side of the field. It’s a special position, especially on this team.

In a game such as Sunday’s, Washington’s miscues had minimal consequences. But Rivera has preached to his players that they’ve yet “to arrive.”

He reminded them after the win in Philadelphia, when a number of players were fined for drinking on the team plane, a violation of NFL policies. Though he was pleased they responded Sunday, Rivera again stressed the need to clean up their mistakes and to remember they’re still not “there.”

“Hats off to them, because the biggest thing we wanted to make sure everybody understood is we’re not where we want to be,” Rivera said. “We’re headed in that direction, and we got to continue to play.”

The development of Washington’s young players — including defensive backs Forrest and St-Juste and linebacker Jamin Davis — has aligned with the team’s offensive improvement, a fact not lost on Rivera. He said last week that among his priorities in deciding on the quarterback was the “mood” of his team. His team turned the visitors’ locker room at Lincoln Financial Field into a club last week and then rode that wave through Houston, so there is no debate there.

Heinicke’s gritty play has been a highlight amid perpetual off-field drama. Signed in December 2020, he emerged as a fan favorite and is now the team’s most experienced signal caller in Scott Turner’s system. And although he has never been deemed the long-term starter, Heinicke is among the most respected players on a team that not long ago was 1-4.

“He’s in his third year here but his 20th with this offense,” Thomas joked.

Heinicke’s play still isn’t free of anxiety-inducing decisions that can turn the game in an instant. In Week 8, his 50-50 deep ball to Terry McLaurin set up the winning touchdown in Indianapolis. In Week 9, the Vikings intercepted his fourth-quarter deep pass over the middle and went on to win.

In Week 10 in Philadelphia, Heinicke’s pivotal plays were unglamorous decisions — a throwaway in the second quarter and taking a knee in the fourth — that helped secure Washington’s upset and showed his growth.

“It’s one of the things that he’s learning: Take what’s given,” Rivera said after that win.

Even Sunday, in the game’s first minute, Heinicke went deep for McLaurin and was nearly intercepted.

“He’ll do something that makes you hold your breath,” Rivera said. “… But that’s Taylor every now and then.”

The Commanders haven’t been perfect, but their trajectory has changed completely with Heinicke, so it came as little surprise that Sunday’s win sealed his spot atop the depth chart.

Wentz averaged nearly four sacks in the first six weeks, and Washington faltered after negative plays and turnovers. At the time, Rivera noted that the quarterback situation was Washington’s biggest hindrance as its NFC East rivals thrived. Wentz was new to the team and its offense, and until it all jelled, the Commanders would be in flux, Rivera argued.

Turning to Heinicke as Washington makes a credible push for a playoff spot seems like a no-brainer, but it has implications elsewhere. As part of their trade, Washington sent Indianapolis a 2023 conditional third-round draft pick that would turn into a second-rounder if he plays at least 70 percent of the Commanders’ snaps. That possibility is now slim at best.

The move to Heinicke also plunges Wentz’s career back into uncertain territory. Washington seemed to be his last, best chance to redeem himself as a starter after bitter divorces with the Eagles and Colts. Struggling with three teams in as many years would make being a starter again a difficult prospect.

For now, at least, Wentz will be a $22 million backup as Heinicke’s Commanders keep rolling.

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