Commanders keys vs. Texans: Convert third downs, take what’s given

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After handing the Philadelphia Eagles their first loss of the season, the Washington Commanders are 3-1 over their past four games, sit a half-game out of a playoff spot and are riding a wave created by their Busch Light-loving quarterback and rediscovered running game.

Taylor Heinicke will get his fifth consecutive start Sunday against 1-7-1 Houston in what has to be considered a trap game. Here are some keys for the Commanders to maintain their momentum:

Stay committed to the run

Washington discovered the best way to defeat Jalen Hurts was to keep the Eagles quarterback off the field. The Commanders ran the ball 49 times against Philadelphia, extending drives and eating the clock while opening up chunk plays in the passing game.

The Commanders envisioned this type of offense when they drafted Brian Robinson Jr. in the third round and paired him with receiver-turned-back Antonio Gibson. A consistent running game is a quarterback’s best friend because it spreads the load and creates bigger opportunities in the passing game by catching the defense off-guard.

The elusiveness, power, quickness and speed of Washington’s backs have turned the running game into a dynamic and deceptive threat. The group’s rushing average lags at 3.9 yards per carry (29th in the NFL), but Coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner have been quick to note that their backs have been used on a number of short-yardage plays. To have similar success in the run game, the Commanders will have to …

Washington converted 57.1 percent of them (12 of 21) Monday in Philadelphia, a significant leap from the offense’s 30 percent and 16.7 percent clips in the previous two games. Eight of those conversions required two or fewer yards.

“I talked to the offensive line about challenging them and the backs saying, ‘Hey, set the tone and be physical in this game,'” Turner said. “I wanted to try to give them the opportunity to do that, and they did that. Then I said, ‘When we get in those third downs, we’ve got to convert, whether it’s running or throwing,’ and we did a nice job running.”

Turner quipped that if the plan to grind it out worked against the Eagles, who have one of the game’s best defenses in total yards and scoring, it should work against most teams. The Texans certainly could be one of those; their rushing defense allowed a league-high 181.8 yards per game through Week 10.

As Rivera cycled through quarterbacks in Washington, he repeated the same philosophy: The smarter plays are often the less glamorous ones. He’s referencing decisions such as a check-down when a deep shot is too risky, or a throwaway when the receivers just aren’t open.

Heinicke has shown growth by responding more to what the defense presents. Against the Eagles, he recovered a snap that was over his head and turned upfield to throw the ball out of bounds, past the line of scrimmage, avoiding a significant loss in yardage. Later in the game, he took a knee instead of forcing a throw to Terry McLaurin that could have been intercepted. He ultimately drew an unnecessary roughness penalty from an Eagles defensive end, which sealed the game.

If Heinicke can maintain his instinctive style of play but rein it in enough to avoid turnovers and glaring mistakes, he will give his team a viable chance to sustain success.

Heinicke gets the start and rookie quarterback Sam Howell will be the backup for at least another game. Carson Wentz resumed throwing this week, but he has yet to be designated to return to practice, a requisite before he can be added back to the active roster.

Defensive end Chase Young continues to work his way back from an ACL injury he suffered in Week 10 last season, but he won’t play Sunday. The team did not activate him in time to make him available for the game. The deadline for the team to add him back to the 53-man roster is Tuesday, and Rivera said the team will “certainly” activate him by then.

On Saturday, the team placed running back JD McKissic (neck) and tight end Armani Rogers (ankle) on injured reserve, ensuring they’ll each miss the next four games, if not longer. With Rogers out, rookie tight end Cole Turner could see more action Sunday, alongside Logan Thomas and John Bates.

Linebacker Cole Holcomb will miss his fourth consecutive game with a foot injury, but fellow linebacker David Mayo, who is questionable, has a chance to return. Mayo has missed two games because of a hamstring injury. To add more depth to the position, Washington elevated linebacker Nathan Gerry from the practice squad for the game.

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