Before the Las Vegas Raiders take on the Washington Football Team, Andrew York of Hogs Haven was kind of enough to answer my questions about the WFT for Raider Nation.
1. At the beginning of the season, Taylor Heinicke was a quarterback that you never know what you’re going to get from him, but Heinicke has played more consistent during the team’s winning streak. What’s been the biggest difference you’ve noticed in him over the last several games?
I think there are a few reasons. One is that the defense has improved over the last few weeks, particularly the secondary. That keeps game scripts manageable and allows Heinicke to take what the defense gives him rather than playing hero ball in a desperate attempt to chase points.
Heinicke has a gamer mentality and does everything he can to keep his team in the game, but that results in some risky throws trying to get the big play when we’re down by multiple scores. I think the coaches have also been working closely with him to reign in those impulses and play within himself, resulting in far more efficient play.
I think another big reason is that our OC Scott Turner has done a better job of understanding and tailoring the offense to Heinicke’s strengths. The bye week is typically when coaches do self-evaluation and make changes; since the bye, I’ve noticed a greater commitment to the run game, which is important for establishing the run to set up the play-action passing game in which Heinicke thrives.
Turner has also worked to include more screens and short passes, where Heinicke is the most accurate (Heinicke doesn’t have the strongest arm and has a tendency to float passes that go downfield). Turner has also added a few more designed QB runs to take advantage of Heinicke’s ability to run, though I think he could afford to do this even more.
Also though, I think Heinicke is just playing better. He seems to have a better command of the offense due to getting more reps and his nerves seem to have calmed down a bit as he gains confidence. He’s processing the field better and I think his throwing mechanics have improved over the course of the season. In particular, he’s doing a better job planting his feet and stepping into his throws, leading to better accuracy.
2. I noticed Terry McLaurin leads the league in contested catches by a wide margin which is impressive seeing as he’s only 6’0” tall. Has that always been a big part of his game or something that he’s developed recently?
I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Terry earlier this season (article here) and he mentioned that he made it his focus this past offseason to improve his contested catch ability (he also worked with Doug Baldwin to improve his release). His improvement in contested catches is a direct result of the hard work he put in during the offseason to improve that facet of his game.
It also struck me during the interview that Terry is a very intelligent, thoughtful player. I suspect he knew that whether his QB this year was Ryan Fitzpatrick or Taylor Heinicke, they would be throwing him a lot of contested balls, so that was an impactful skill to train.
It’s also worth mentioning though that Terry is extremely physical and strong for only being 6’0” tall. He had 18 bench press reps at the Combine and was known as a physical blocker even in college. He was pretty good at contested catches even before this season, but this season he’s taken it to a new level.
To be honest, doing this makes me happier than scoring pic.twitter.com/Rqpg4cFPpV— Terry McLaurin (@TheTerry_25) September 23, 2018
3. Ereck Flowers has a negative stigma about him because the beginning of his career didn’t start out well in New York, but he’s slid inside to guard and played well in recent years. This is his second stint in Washington so what’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed in Flowers of the past versus who he is now?
Washington fans are actually very familiar with Ereck Flowers because he was drafted by our division-rival Giants and functioned as a turnstile at LT for many years, helping our team even then. He then signed with Washington and transitioned to LG, where he played some of his best football, before signing a big contract in Miami, underperforming, and being traded back to Washington, where he has shined again.
Many of the reasons he failed as a tackle and shined as a guard were predicted in this insightful article before he was drafted. In short, he lacks lateral agility and footwork, which are crucial for playing offensive tackle. However, he has a powerful upper body, long arms, and a mean streak and physicality about him, which make him perfectly suited to play guard, where he has a smaller box to defend in pass protection so his poor feet are less important.
I think there’s also a mental aspect to his performance as well. When he was drafted by the Giants as the 9th overall pick, it came with both high expectations and a lot of statuses, which may have gone to his head. Giants fans have said he was very stubborn and resisted coaching while there. When he was finally released, I think it humbled him and opened him up to coaching a bit more.
I think he underperformed again in Miami because they signed him to a big contract, maybe bringing back some of that haughtiness and stubbornness. Having to earn his roster spot again in Washington brought out the competitor in him. He has all the physical tools to play guard, he just needs to keep the right mindset, and right now he’s got that mindset and is doing a great job in both the run and pass game.
4. I know Chase Young is done for the year and I believe Montez Sweat will be out this week too, so, who is going to line up on the edge for Washington this week and what are they going to be missing without those two in the lineup?
Based on the snaps last week, we can expect James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill to each get around 70% of the snaps at DE.
James Smith-Williams was a 7th round pick by Washington in the 2020 draft. He’s an athletic freak and physically compares to Ryan Kerrigan (formerly of Washington), but fell in the draft due to injury concerns. He’s managed to stay healthy so far and is playing solid football.
Casey Toohill was a 7th round pick by the Eagles in the 2020 draft. He was claimed by Washington after being waived by the Eagles, which irked some Eagles fans who knew he was destined for their practice squad. Similar to Smith-Williams, Toohill was considered a raw, but athletic prospect who needed some time to develop and gain weight before being ready to play in games.
Both of these players have looked solid, though unspectacular since stepping into a starting role. They haven’t looked particularly bad in any area, so they haven’t introduced any glaring weaknesses to the defense either.
It may also be worth mentioning 7th round rookie Shaka Toney. He only played 5 snaps in last week’s game, but managed to get a sack, a QB hit, a tackle for loss, and two tackles in that limited time. He’s undersized to play DE, but the coaches may want to reward that performance with more playing time and it’s anyone’s guess how he does.
The defense may actually be playing better without Montez Sweat or Chase Young in the lineup. Although those two have more athleticism and potential, they haven’t produced much this season. Some people have criticized the two for freelancing too much in order to make a play, resulting in weaknesses that other teams have exploited. Their backups may not be as talented, but they are playing more disciplined, which is leading to more team success.
5. Kendall Fuller had primarily been a nickel or slot corner to start his career but has played predominantly on the outside since returning to Washington. What do you think has allowed him to successfully make that transition and where have you seen improvements in his game since his first go-around in DC?
I think the main thing is that he’s a bit undersized compared to most boundary CBs (5’11” and 198 lbs), but he makes up for it with intelligence and anticipation, reading the route or the QB’s eyes to get where the ball is going before the intended WR. He isn’t blazing fast and is best suited to a zone defense, but he’s still fast enough to match up with most WRs in man coverage and keep pace.
He struggles the most against strong, physical WRs who can muscle him out. There isn’t really one area that stands out as a major area of improvement since his earlier days in Washington, he’s just gradually improved in every facet of his game through intelligence and hard work. He actually reminds me a bit of Raiders CB Casey Hayward.
Hayward is also a bit undersized (5’11 and 192 lbs) and started out in the slot, but had the intelligence and work ethic to improve over time and eventually demand a starting boundary role on his second team.