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Commanders drop to 49ers as Taylor Heinicke replaced by Carson Wentz

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Taylor Heinicke tapped his helmet and walked down the sideline. It was all he could do after seeing his pass land in the arms of a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, ending the second straight drive with a turnover.

The Washington Commanders quarterback knew what was coming.

“I understand,” he said after the 37-20 loss. “I was really hurt there, and the last two attempts were two comebacks. So I understand.”

Carson Wentz knew this too. He promptly started practicing snaps with center Wes Schweitzer on the bench.

After Heinicke led Washington to a 5-2-1 stretch and the playoff hunt, their run was cut short Saturday afternoon when turnovers and penalties brought the Commanders down. Despite an efficient three-quarter showing, he was replaced by Wentz midway through the fourth quarter.

The starting lineup for next week’s game against Cleveland has yet to be announced.

Four takeaways from the Commanders’ loss to the 49ers

“We’re going to go through the tape and talk about these things, and I’ll make a decision next week,” coach Ron Rivera said. “I will arrive early too, because those who will start will have a chance to work.”

Washington (7-7-1) is still ranked seventh in the NFC thanks to past losses by the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks and still controls its playoff destiny. The Commanders’ most likely path to the postseason is by winning their final two games, against the Browns and Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field.

The quarterback situation began to look hazy after the Commanders’ Week 15 loss to the New York Giants, in which Heinicke fumbled twice in the red zone, costing the team its best chance of clinching a playoff berth.

His leash in Santa Clara was short. Very short. And even after making the switch, Rivera admitted that the blame for the turnovers wasn’t just Heinicke’s.

“Assigning everyone to him would be very difficult,” Rivera said. “Those weren’t his problems. There were a few things we could have done better.”

Heinicke was 13-of-18 for 166 yards with two touchdowns, an interception and a fumble, a stat line marred by those turnovers. He closed out the first half going 8 of 11 passing with a 126.7 rating and a beautiful touchdown pass to rookie Jahan Dotson in the corner of the end zone. But Washington couldn’t score on a fourth and one from the 1-yard line in the second quarter, and after turnovers in the fourth quarter, Wentz took over and led the Commanders on an 82-yard scoring drive.

Heinicke was the first to congratulate Wentz as he trotted out of bounds after his 20-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel, and he immediately acknowledged his play after the game.

“I felt like we were playing good there for, what, 3 and a half quarters,” said Heinicke. “Obviously not how you want to start fourth period. But they decided to bring Carson in and I thought he did a great job and moved the ball well. It’s really cool that it was his first game that he’s seen for a while now, and his first drive he goes down and scores a touchdown. He was ready for his moment.”

Wentz’s scoring pass only cut the 49ers’ lead to 10. There was already plenty of self-inflicted damage for the Commanders: penalties (six, for a 51-yard loss), turnovers (two), and big plays allowed by a previously robust defense — many of the same issues that plagued the start of the season.

Coming into the game, the Commanders said they wanted to emphasize running, especially after Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner complained about minimal touches to rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. Saturday.

But against the league-leading 49ers defense, Washington’s commitment did not pay dividends. On 24 carries in the first half, the Commanders totaled just 52 yards for a 2.2 per carry average. Robinson finished with 22 carries for 58 yards, and the team had 79 yards on the ground.

After a pair of threes and outs to start the game, the Commanders’ offense found some semblance of rhythm on their third drive, going 84 net yards in 17 plays before stalling at the 1-yard line, unable to convert on fourth down. when Antonio Gibson was interrupted.

“I think we moved the ball around really well there in the first half,” said Heinicke. “We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot.”

On the other side of the ball, defensive end Chase Young made his season debut after a lengthy absence to recover from a knee injury. The plan was to limit him to 12 to 16 snaps, but that was scrapped in the second half when he settled. Young looked agile in his first game back, recording a pass hit and a few tackles.

“The best thing though was his conditioning,” Rivera said. 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 We told him he had to be honest, that we were going to trust him, and when we got to the fourth quarter, they asked if we wanted to shut it down, and I went up to him and talked directly to him, and he said to me, ‘Coach, I’m feeling very well.’ 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 So we continued.”

But the captains were dealing with another injury to a key defender: safety Kam Curl was sidelined with an ankle problem – he said he was close to playing but felt he couldn’t do what he needed to after testing him ahead of the game – and to make up for it, Rivera mostly turned to Jeremy Reaves. Although he held out, breakdowns occurred elsewhere.

In the second quarter, Washington’s running defense was undone on a 71-yard touchdown run by Ray-Ray McCloud III, which broke through the right side of the line and found a wide lane.

In the third quarter, 49ers rookie signaller Brock Purdy found tight end George Kittle open in midfield after a gap in coverage. Safety Darrick Forrest, who caught Purdy in the second quarter to set up Dotson’s touchdown, went deep and couldn’t track Kittle, who plowed past him on a seam route for a 33-yard touchdown.

“I have to be better than that,” Forrest said. “I knew as soon as I saw him, this is my fault.”

Rivera, still angered by the calls that went against the Commanders against the Giants, had lengthy talks with officials again Saturday. In the third quarter, commanders called a quarterback sneak in one quarter and one in their own territory, but after measuring the chains, officials determined that they were inches short. Rivera scolded the officials, then watched from the sideline as Purdy again found Kittle for a quick score.

Commanders’ response: Give Terry McLaurin a chance. A big.

From his own 43-yard line with about three minutes left in the third, Heinicke threw a 51-yard pass down the middle to his favored receiver. With two defenders around him, McLaurin dove for the catch at the San Francisco 6.

“Finally we had the opportunity to make the matchup we wanted and we kicked it down the field,” said McLaurin. “Taylor did a great job of giving me the chance to track the ball, and I just wanted to do that right then and there.”

The Commanders entered the fourth quarter trailing by just seven points with Heinicke playing well, but a regression in back-to-back offense drives sent the quarterback to the bench.

First, Nick Bosa connected with Heinicke just as he pulled back to throw, knocking the ball into the arms of Jordan Willis at Washington’s 11-yard line. The 49ers turned in a field goal that increased their lead to 27-14.

On Washington’s subsequent drive, Heinicke was intercepted by cornerback Jimmie Ward in the 25th on a short pass to Robinson. The defense held, forcing a field goal that changed the score to 30-14.

Rivera turned to Wentz for the remainder of the quarter, giving him his first snaps since Week 6, when he injured his finger and was placed on injured reserve.

The Commanders, with their heads down, walked off the field with another loss, possibly a different starting quarterback and a dwindling opportunity to return to the postseason.

“It was definitely weird, not gonna lie,” Wentz said. “I feel sorry for Taylor too. I thought he played well. So overall kind of weird and unfortunately we didn’t do that.