An inability to air the ball out could be fatal flaw for Washington heading into the playoffs

Zachary Neel
·3 min read

Heading into their first postseason game since 2015, the Washington defense is riding high and feeling that they may have what it takes to slow down Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night, giving their team a chance to win and advance into the next round of the playoffs.

However, will their offense be good enough to make good on what the defense gives them?

That’s the golden question in Washington and one that the team is far from answering. It’s been a problem all season; the defense routinely stands up strong when put in a tough position, forcing the opposing offense to punt, and then Washington’s offense is unable to do anything with it. It was a problem again last week, and the issue has been magnified with the nagging calf injury suffered by Alex Smith a few weeks ago.

So if the overall problem is a lack of offensive production, what needs to get better to fix it? That is something that we do have an idea about, and the answer is getting more yards through the air in the passing game.

According to USA TODAY’s Touchdown Wire, Washington’s (potentially) fatal flaw is that they are severely lacking when it comes to yards per pass attempt, and all of these little check-down throws and screen passes may elevate a completion percentage, but they don’t do much for the offense in the grand scheme of things.

Washington ranks dead last in the NFL in offensive DVOA and in passing DVOA. There are many reasons for this debacle. We can start with another former first-round pick — quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who never really got the hang of the NFL and was released on Dec. 28. It is exceedingly rare for a franchise to bail on a first-round quarterback no matter how badly he’s playing, so that gives you a clue as to how badly things were going.

However, Haskins’ departure doesn’t fix Washington’s primary offensive bugaboo — a lack of air yards that boggles the mind. Haskins was merely the worst deep thrower in the NFL this season. On passes of 20 or more air yards, he completed just two of 20 attempts for 69 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 1.9. Alex Smith has been much better when healthy on deep passes, completing 10 of 24 attempts for 335 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.

But in a season when so many of the NFL’s postseason quarterbacks had more than 10 touchdown passes on deep throws, and far more opportunities to do so, this leaves Washington with absolutely no margin for error against the league’s more explosive offenses — starting with the Buccaneers in the wild-card round. The WFT has the league’s third-fewest air yards overall (1,520), behind only the Patriots (1,444) and the Jets (1,476); the Bucs have the league’s second-highest air yards total (2,587), behind only the Falcons (2,814).

So, if Tom Brady is able to get his offense humming to the tune of an early lead, Smith will have to uncork it as he would rather not, just to stay in the game.

Ron Rivera floated the idea of potentially rotating QBs this weekend, which would bring backup Taylor Heinicke into the mix. We’ve only seen him play in one quarter this year when he came in against the Carolina Panthers in relief for Haskins, and his arm looked pretty good. There’s a chance that Smith could be used to the check-downs, and Heinicke could be used for the deep ball, but rotating guys in and out brings in a whole host of different questions and issues.

We’ll see what Washington ends up doing this weekend to try and shore up their offense, but it’s clear that a dink-and-dunk strategy is not likely to get the job done in round 1 of the playoffs.