ASHBURN, Va. — With Alex Smith still nursing a strained calf, Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera said they might turn to a unique solution: rotating their quarterbacks.
Washington (7-9) hosts the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) in the first round of the playoffs Saturday. Smith missed two games with a strained calf but returned to help Washington clinch the NFC East with a win over Philadelphia. But the calf injury limited Smith’s mobility.
If that happens Saturday, Rivera said the team will consider using two quarterbacks. That would mean alternating Smith with Taylor Heinicke, who was out of the league for nearly two years before Washington signed him to its practice squad on Dec. 8.
“We have to definitely look at that,” Rivera said. “The truth of the matter is we play a very aggressive defense this week; it’s something we most certainly have to look at.”
Tampa has blitzed 262 times, second most in the NFL behind Baltimore, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Bucs have recorded 24 of their 48 sacks via blitzes, while also causing 10 of their 25 takeaways. They’ve also surrendered a league-high 14 touchdowns against the blitz.
Heinicke has played in this system for three years with two other teams — Minnesota and Carolina — and provided a fourth-quarter spark in a Week 16 loss to Carolina. In that game, Heinicke completed 12-of-19 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. A second touchdown was negated by a holding penalty. He showed the ability to move around, which might come in handy Saturday.
Rivera said that if they went this route, they wouldn’t need two game plans. They originally valued Heinicke because of his knowledge of this system. However, Rivera said, they might tap into different aspects of the plan for each quarterback.
“To have two separate game plans, you’re asking for way too much of your team,” Rivera said. “That’s why it’s important to have quarterbacks that know your system, understand your system and have been a part of your system.
“I couldn’t tell you whether we want to do it or don’t want to do it,” Rivera said. “I couldn’t tell you if there’s value to doing it. I just know we’ll address it when it happens.”
Smith hurt his calf in a Dec. 13 victory over San Francisco. He played with it during the first half and tried to stretch it out during the game and at halftime. It didn’t work and he sat out the second half. Dwayne Haskins started the next two games, both losses.
Against Philadelphia, Smith completed 22-of-32 passes for 162 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He was sacked three times. Rivera said he doesn’t know whether Smith’s calf can improve much this week, which, in turn, would lead to more questions about his ability to escape pressure. Rivera said he considered using Heinicke against the Eagles. But Rivera was pleased with Smith’s first drive, resulting in a touchdown, and another right before halftime that ended in another seven points.
“I thought he had his moments [vs. Philadelphia],” said Rivera, when asked about Smith’s mobility. “That first drive is what we were looking for. The drive before halftime was excellent. There were a couple things that happened where you say, ‘Oh, man, I wish he could have stepped away from that.’ As long as he’s performing and doing things we need to help us, we’ll keep rolling.”
If not, they’ll consider alternatives — like a rotation.
“We’ll just know as we go through the game and we get in certain situations or circumstances we may have to consider something like that,” Rivera said. “I can’t tell you what it would be. It has to be something that comes up in the moment of the game.”