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Commanders’ red-zone offense takes a step forward but still has work to do

Commanders tight end John Bates lands in the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown catch during the third quarter of Sunday's win over the Falcons.

Late in the third quarter Sunday, Washington Commanders tight end John Bates took off from the 16-yard line on the second in a three-route combination: post, corner and flat. Before the snap, he had seen the Atlanta Falcons in a single-high-safety defense, so when the linebackers bit on the run action and wide receiver Jahan Dotson broke inside toward the safety, Bates figured quarterback Taylor Heinicke would read from the post (Dotson’s route) to the corner (his).

“I had a pretty good idea that it was probably going to be coming to me,” Bates said, smiling.

As Bates broke outside, Heinicke slung the ball his way. The touchdown gave the Commanders the lead for good in a 19-13 victory, their third in a row. But perhaps the most notable part of the play was that they had scored a touchdown in the red zone.

Since Week 7, when Heinicke took over for the injured Carson Wentz, Washington has relied on a formula predicated on running the ball. The offense has sustained lengthy drives, dominated the clock and scored points with regularity, but it often has stalled out in the red zone. Under Heinicke, Washington ranks 12th in red-zone drives (18), sixth in scoring on those drives (94 percent) and 21st in red-zone touchdown rate (50 percent), per TruMedia.

An inability to finish drives is particularly dangerous for an offense such as Washington’s, which isn’t as explosive as a pass-first scheme and doesn’t often create separation from its opponent. The liability was highlighted against Atlanta, another ball-control team that forces opponents to maximize their limited possessions. Washington was more efficient Sunday, scoring two touchdowns and kicking a field goal in three red-zone trips, but if cornerback Kendall Fuller hadn’t made a game-sealing interception in the end zone, the Commanders leaving four points on the field would’ve been an issue.

“A little better,” Coach Ron Rivera said of Sunday’s red-zone offense, citing Bates’s touchdown. But he quickly pointed to one of the Commanders’ earlier chances. In the second quarter, they churned to the Atlanta 14. From there, Heinicke threw incomplete for Bates, running back Antonio Gibson was stopped after a two-yard gain, and Heinicke couldn’t hit wide receiver Terry McLaurin on a short throw to the right. Washington settled for a 30-yard field goal by Joey Slye and a 10-10 tie.

“We got to punch it in,” Rivera said.

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The red zone has been a problem for Washington all season. In the first six weeks with Wentz, the team got to the red zone on 14 of 74 drives, the worst rate in the NFL (18.9 percent), and scored only 71.4 percent of the time, the second-worst rate. But the offense overcame the problem at times because it was explosive enough to score from outside the red zone. In Week 5 against Tennessee, for example, Wentz threw two touchdown passes outside the red zone — before tossing a game-losing interception in it.

Since Heinicke has taken over, Washington has had an explosive play — a rush of 12 or more yards or a pass of 16 or more — on just 9.2 percent of its plays, which ranks 26th in the NFL. This heightens the importance of the Commanders making the drives they can sustain count.

Last week, Rivera suggested his team’s struggles are tied to less effective play on first down. It’s unclear whether the data supports that notion, but it’s possible Rivera sees problems because his team is more predictable in the red zone. Washington runs 58.9 percent of the time there, the eighth-highest rate in the league. If the opposing defense doesn’t fear Heinicke’s arm or believe coordinator Scott Turner will call a pass, it can put more players in the box and stuff the run.

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Another factor could be the tight ends. The top three receivers at the position — Logan Thomas, Cole Turner and Armani Rogers — haven’t been consistently healthy. And Thomas, when he did get on the field, didn’t look like himself until Week 11. At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Thomas was one of the league’s best red-zone threats in 2020 before struggling with injuries in 2021 and 2022.

“I think [tight end health is] a little bit of it,” Rivera said. “We really haven’t had the continuity of that position. … That is a big position in the red zone for us, especially in this offense.”

That context heightens the importance of Bates’s touchdown catch. Thomas and Turner were active Sunday, but if the 6-6, 259-pounder can become a reliable red-zone target, it would be a boon for the offense.

In its win at Houston, Washington scored one touchdown and kicked two field goals on three red-zone trips (discounting a fourth on the final possession, when the game’s outcome was settled and the Commanders ran out the clock). One of the field goals raised the question of whether Washington’s floundering is tied to play-calling, Heinicke’s arm or some of both. Near the end of the first half, the Commanders marched deep into Texans territory and took their final timeout at the 6-yard line with 22 seconds left.

“Obviously, in that situation, you can’t run the ball,” Heinicke said.

On the next two plays, Heinicke threw incomplete passes. The reason those passes didn’t work, Heinicke said, was that Houston played cover-two, “and the couple plays that we called just didn’t have that cover-two beater on it. So it’s just one of those things.”

Despite Sunday’s step forward, Rivera, Heinicke and others spoke about the red zone as they have other facets of this successful stretch. The Commanders are having success but still have to improve.

“We could have been better in the red zone, clearly,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “When you get into the red zone, you want to get touchdowns, and that’s what our emphasis will be moving forward.”