TAMPA — During their remarkable run to their Super Bowl 55 championship, the Bucs took down a gauntlet of quarterbacks such as Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.
But that was child’s play compared to the struggle they had with (checks roster) Taylor Heinicke.
The Washington Football Team was expected to start veteran Alex Smith in the NFC wild-card game in January at Fed Ex Field.
But a lingering calf injury meant Smith was out and the daring, pylon-diving quarterback from Old Dominion had his big break.
Heinicke made the most of it, passing for 306 yards with one touchdown and an interception. More impressively, he extended plays, escaped likely sacks and rushed six times for 46 yards and a score.
The Bucs managed to hold on for a 31-23 win, but the game wasn’t sealed until Lavonte David’s sack of Heinicke on the final drive.
“Yeah, we basically were getting ready for Alex (Smith) and we knew he was going to be sitting in the middle of the pocket,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “So, there were certain things we were doing, and not knowing Taylor (Heinicke) and not knowing he was going to play, it was difficult.”
There were several contributing factors to Heinicke’s success. The Bucs hadn’t reached the postseason in 12 years. Even at 7-9, Washington was the NFC East champion.
Much of the Bucs’ defensive game plan and pressure packages were designed for Smith, whom they knew would stay in the pocket.
Heinicke’s ability to make throws on the run in the game rivaled Russell Wilson.
“I think when you have the unknown, especially in a game like that, being the first playoff game for us in a long time and the energy level, not knowing how fast he was — you know now,” Arians said. “This guy can really go. If you open the middle of that pocket, he’s going to take off.
“So yeah, that’s a whole different ballgame when you know who you’re dealing with. He can throw that deep ball. He can throw that seven route. He proved he can play.”
Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said that while Heinicke played well, it wasn’t because the Bucs didn’t prepare for him.
“We prepare for everybody, and we understand who their backups are and who comes in on the third team,” Bowles sad. “If you’re on the roster — as a defensive coordinator or any coordinator — it would be foolish not to know who could or could not come in that ballgame. He just played a good ball game.”
However, Heinicke hasn’t been able to lead his team to many points or wins lately. Washington entered the bye week on a four-game losing streak in which they averaged just 13.7 points.
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“There’s been a lot of good (with Heinicke), and it hasn’t showed up on the scoreboard, especially in the last three weeks,” Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. “For the way that we’ve moved the ball, we should’ve scored more points — and we very easily could have. I think we’re a lot closer than what it seems to be than when you look at the end results.”
Of course, Heinicke isn’t the only player on offense the Bucs must account for. Receiver Terry McLaurin is one of the best in the league, and running backs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic create matchup problems for the Bucs.
“My primary concern is they have weapons across the field,” Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said. “They have Terry McLaurin — he’s a threat at receiver. Antonio Gibson and (J.D) McKissic. Obviously, the quarterback. I remember what he did to us last year. He’s definitely a threat to us.
“At the end of the day, as long as we take of what we’re supposed to take care of and execute our thing on defense and play sound and smart football, it definitely feels like we have a chance.”
Something few would have given Heinicke against the Bucs 10 months ago.
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