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Commanders keys vs. Falcons: Force Mariota to throw, capitalize in red zone

Commanders defensive tackles Jonathan Allen (93) and Daron Payne (94) and defensive end Montez Sweat (90) have helped the Washington defensive line excel this season. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Commanders (6-5) avoided a major letdown in Week 11 when they took care of business against the Houston Texans six days after they knocked off the previously undefeated Philadelphia Eagles. Despite a 1-4 start, Washington now sits just a half-game behind the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC’s final wild card spot.

Taylor Heinicke, who was named the Commanders’ starting quarterback following the win in Houston, will make his sixth consecutive start Sunday, against the Atlanta Falcons (5-6).

Here’s what to watch when the Commanders host the Falcons (1 p.m., Fox).

As the Commanders surge, Ron Rivera gives thanks with a holiday break

Force Mariota to win with his arm

Atlanta offensive coordinator Dave Ragone’s unit runs the ball early and often. Through 11 games, the Falcons have 110 more rushing attempts than passes thrown, and their rushing attack, which features four players (running backs Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley, utility player Cordarrelle Patterson and quarterback Marcus Mariota) with at least 300 yards, ranks third in the NFL in yards per game (159.4) and sixth in yards per carry (4.9).

Washington’s run defense has already held its own against the Tennessee Titans and the Eagles, two of the league’s rushing leaders, and it has allowed the sixth-fewest rushing yards per game (103.1). Anchored by standout tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, the line should be up to the task of keeping the Falcons in check.

Mariota can make most of the requisite passes, but if the Commanders can shut down the running game and force him to throw the ball often, they should put themselves in a position to succeed. Atlanta is 4-1 when Mariota has 20 or fewer passing attempts and 1-5 when he exceeds that number.

Replace St-Juste

Benjamin St-Juste, Washington’s breakout cornerback, will be sidelined with an ankle injury he suffered in Houston, and the Commanders are thin at outside corner and don’t have a clear option to replace him. The Falcons have a big target in rookie wideout Drake London, the No. 8 pick in the draft. St-Juste would have matched up well with London (6-foot-4, 219 pounds) because of his length.

In St-Juste’s place, Washington could use a safety (Bobby McCain or Percy Butler), a slot corner (Danny Johnson or Rachad Wildgoose) or an unproven rookie (Christian Holmes). This week, Commanders Coach Ron Rivera complimented Holmes’s special teams play, as well as his recent practices, but he didn’t offer a hint to the game plan.

Elevate the passing game

With Heinicke’s placeholder title removed and the Commanders in the middle of the race for an NFC wild-card spot, the time is now for him to elevate Washington’s passing attack. In five starts this season, the quarterback has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 1,031 yards and five touchdowns with four interceptions.

“I think we have the components,” Rivera said. “We just [got to] make sure we can get the ball to [our playmakers], and with Taylor … you just never know, but you know that it’s possible.”

Atlanta’s defense has allowed an average of 266.3 passing yards per game (29th in the NFL), and a game against the Falcons should provide the perfect opportunity for Heinicke to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers.

Capitalize on Falcons’ red-zone defense

In last week’s 23-10 win at Houston, Washington’s inability to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns undermined its success on offense. The Commanders scored just one touchdown in four trips to the red zone, and they rank 23rd in red-zone efficiency, having reached the end zone on just 51.7 percent of their attempts.

The Commanders should get plenty of red-zone reps against an Atlanta defense that has faced the third-most red-zone plays (115) and allowed the fourth-most red-zone touchdowns (25) in the NFL.

“We need to be better in the red zone, and I think we will be,” Heinicke said.

Injury report

The Commanders will be without St-Juste and punt returner Dax Milne (foot). Linebacker Cole Holcomb (foot) will miss his fifth straight game; the Commanders placed him on injured reserve Friday.

Defensive end Chase Young, who is working his way back from a knee injury he suffered last season, and tight end Logan Thomas (rib/illness) are listed as questionable.

How will Chase Young fit on a D-line that has hit its stride without him?

For the Falcons, defensive lineman Jalen Dalton (toe) is doubtful to play. Huntley, tight end Feleipe Franks (calf), linebacker Arnold Ebiketie (arm) and offensive lineman Chuma Edoga (knee) are listed as questionable.

Sam Fortier contributed to this report.

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