The Commanders fall on the 49s when Taylor Heinicke benched for Carson Wentz


SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Taylor Heinicke slammed his helmet shut and paced the sidelines. It was all he could do after watching his pass sail into the arms of a San Francisco 49ers defenseman and ending a second straight drive with a turnover.

The Washington Commanders quarterback knew what was coming.

“I understand,” he said after the 37:20 defeat. “I was pretty exhausted up there and the last two drives were two turnovers. So I understand.”

Carson Wentz knew it too. He immediately began practicing snaps with center Wes Schweitzer on the bench.

After leading Washington into the playoff hunt with a 5-2-1 stretch, Heinicke’s run came to an abrupt end on Saturday afternoon when turnovers and penalties brought down the commanders. Despite an efficient display for three quarters, he was benched for Wentz midway through the fourth quarter.

The starter for next week’s game against Cleveland is to be determined.

Four takeaways from the Commanders’ loss to the 49ers

“We’re going to review the tape and talk about these things, and I’ll make a decision next week,” said coach Ron Rivera. “I’ll make it early too, because whoever starts gets the chance to work.”

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

The quarterback situation turned cloudy after the Commanders’ Week 15 loss to the New York Giants, which saw Heinicke fumble twice in the red zone and the team lost its best shot at a playoff spot.

His leash in Santa Clara was short. Very short. And even after making the change, Rivera acknowledged that Heinicke wasn’t solely to blame for the sales.

“Having them all attached to him would be really difficult,” Rivera said. “Those weren’t his problems. There were some things we could have done better.”

Heinicke went 13 for 18 for 166 yards with two touchdowns, an interception and a fumble, a stat line marred by those turnovers. He finished the first half 8 for 11 on the fly with a 126.7 rating and a nice touchdown pass to rookie wideout Jahan Dotson in the corner of the end zone. But Washington failed to score in the second quarter on a fourth and one from the 1-yard line, and after fourth-quarter turnovers, Wentz took over and led the Commanders on an 82-yard scoring drive.

Heinicke was the first to congratulate Wentz as he trotted off the field after his 20-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel, and he immediately confirmed his play after the game.

“I had the feeling that we were playing well there for 3½ quarters,” said Heinicke. “Obviously not how you want to start the fourth quarter. But they made the decision to put Carson in and I thought he did a great job and moved the ball well. It’s pretty cool that this was his first game he’s seen in a while and his first drive to shut down and score a touchdown. He was ready for his moment.”

Wentz’s shot on goal only reduced the 49ers’ lead to 10. There was already too much self-inflicted damage for the commanders: penalties (six for a 51-yard loss), turnovers (two), and big plays allowed by a previously strong defense – many of the same issues that hampered the start of the season.

Early in the game, commanders said they wanted to emphasize the run, especially after Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner lamented the minimal touches for rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. Getting him the ball early and often and staying committed to the run were priorities Saturday.

But against the 49ers’ league-leading running defense, Washington’s efforts didn’t pay off. With 24 carries in the first half, the Commanders totaled just 52 yards for an average of 2.2 yards per run. Robinson finished with 22 carries for 58 yards and the team had 79 yards on the ground.

After two three-and-outs early in the game, the Commanders offense found some rhythm on their third drive, crossing 84 net yards in 17 games before faltering at the 1-yard line and not on the fourth down was able to convert when Antonio Gibson was briefly stopped.

“I thought we got the ball there pretty well in the first half,” said Heinicke. “We keep shooting ourselves in the foot.”

On the other side of the ball, defensive end Chase Young made his season debut after an extended absence recovering from a knee injury. The plan was to limit him to 12-16 snaps, but that was scrapped in the second half as he settled in. Young looked sprightly in his first game back, recording a battered pass and a couple of tackles.

“The best part, though, was his conditioning,” Rivera said. “. . . We told him he had to be honest, we would trust him and when we got to the fourth quarter they asked if we wanted to shut him down and I went up to him and spoke to him directly and he said to me, ‘Coach, I feel really good.” . . . So we kept going.”

But commanders had to deal with another injury to a key defender: all-rounder Kam Curl was sidelined with an ankle problem – he said he was close to playing but felt he couldn’t do what he needed after he tested it before the game – and for balance, Rivera turned primarily to Jeremy Reaves. Though he held out, glitches occurred elsewhere.

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

In the third quarter, 49ers rookie signal-caller Brock Purdy found tight end George Kittle wide open in the center of the field after a cover collapse. Safety Darrick Forrest, who picked up Purdy in the second quarter to set up Dotson’s touchdown, was deep and couldn’t track Kittle, who raced 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 it was my fault.”

Rivera, still hot from calls going against the Commanders against the Giants, again had long talks with officials Saturday. In the third quarter, the Commanders called for a quarterback sneak on a fourth and one in their own territory, but after customizing the chains, officials decided they were inches too short. Rivera gave the officials an ear and then watched from the sidelines as Purdy found Kittle again for a quick result.

The Commanders’ Response: Give Terry McLaurin a chance. A large.

From his own 43-yard line with about three minutes remaining, Heinicke launched a 51-yard pass down the middle to his favorite receiver. With two defenders around him, McLaurin dived for the catch at the San Francisco 6.

“We finally had an opportunity to get a matchup that we wanted and we took a shot down the field,” McLaurin said. “Taylor just did a great job giving me the ability to track the ball and I just wanted to get him down at that moment.”

The Commanders went into the fourth quarter just seven points behind, with Heinicke playing well, but a setback on two drives off offense sent the quarterback to the bench.

Nick Bosa hit Heinicke first when he retired to throw and smashed the ball into the arms of Jordan Willis at Washington’s 11-yard line. The 49ers converted it into a field goal that extended their lead to 27-14.

On Washington’s subsequent drive, Heinicke was intercepted by cornerback Jimmie Ward at the 25 on a short pass intended for Robinson. The defense held and forced a field goal that put the score at 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 stalked off the field with their heads down with another loss, possibly a different starting quarterback and a dwindling opportunity to return to the postseason.

“It was definitely weird, I wouldn’t lie,” Wentz said. “I feel for Taylor too. I thought he played well. So all in all it’s kind of weird, and unfortunately we didn’t get it right.”

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