It's hard to forget Taylor Heinicke if you play for -or root for- the Buccaneers.
He's the reason the Washington Football Team gave the Bucs a Wild Card scare back during the first round of the playoffs back in January. Heinicke threw for over 300 yards and made several plays on the ground, but he and Washington ultimately fell short by a final score of 31-23.
"I remember what he did to us last year, he’s definitely a threat to us," Lavonte David said earlier in the week.
The performance was enough for Washington to sign Heinicke to a two-year deal and he proceeded to win the backup quarterback job after bouncing around the league for the first few years of his career. Heinicke was then given the starting job after Ryan Fitzpatrick went down with a hip injury in Week 1. He hasn't seen the bench since.
The fourth-year quarterback knows that Wild Card game is the catalyst to his newfound success. He even admitted to it Wednesday.
But Heinicke hasn't fared so well since throwing eight touchdowns over the first four games in which he played. He has just three passing touchdowns compared to six interceptions over the last four games and has yet to surpass an 86.3 quarterback rating during the same span.
A lack of tape and Alex Smith's injury is why Heinicke gave the Bucs so much trouble in the playoffs. The fact that Heinicke hadn't played much up to that point caught the Bucs off guard, in a sense.
"We basically were getting ready for Alex [Smith] and we knew he was going to be sitting in the middle of the pocket," Bruce Arians told reporters Wednesday. "So, there were certain things we were doing, and not knowing Taylor [Heinicke] and not knowing he was going to play, it was difficult."
"Last year, we weren’t planning on him coming in here and doing what he could do," Antoine Winfield Jr. told reporters. "I feel like that’s a different thing is being able to prepare for them.”
But if you ask Todd Bowles, it was more about Heinicke showing that he belongs in the NFL.
"No, we know everybody on the roster, and we should have a plan for whoever comes into the game at any position," Bowles said when asked if switching from Smith to Heinicke late in the week last year affected the Bucs. "He just played a good ball game.”
Either way, the tape that is now on Heinicke shows that he isn't the same quarterback that gave the Bucs so much trouble in the playoffs. That doesn't mean he can't come out and have another great game, but it's clear that he can't expect to win this game if he keeps up his recent play.
Heinicke is going through some growing pains
He struggles to see downfield and read defenses more often than not and he's missed out on some big plays as a result.
The play below is a good example. Heinicke has good protection and plenty of time to scan the field, but he somehow misses the receiver at the top of the screen, who is wide-open off the nine route. Micah Hyde bites down on Terry McLaurin's route and Heinicke just either doesn't see the nine route or refuses to go for the deep shot.
Sure, it's a 10-yard gain, but this could've been a touchdown.
The next play is just a bad decision through and through. The Saints do have a good play called on defense, but Heinicke has no reason to throw this ball. The confidence/aggressiveness is somewhat of a plus, but he's lucky Demario Davis doesn't come away with the pick. Just check it down, if anything.
And he misses a wide-open Ricky Seals-Jones over the middle on this play. Sure, Seals-Jones probably isn't even a top-3 option in terms of Heinicke's progression, but it's still an odd decision for him to stick with McLaurin as the target on this play. The safeties are clearly showing that they are in Quarters, which means the middle of the field will be open. Heinicke tries to drop the ball into the honey hole, but overthrows McLaurin instead of going for the easy (and big) completion to RSJ.
Inaccuracy has also been an issue
Per Pro Football Focus, Heinicke is 29th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks (guys who have logged at least 173 dropbacks on the year) when it comes to their adjusted completion metric. Per Pro Football Reference, he's mid-pack when it comes to on-target throw percentage (77.3%). Per Sports Info Solutions, Heinicke has the third-lowest catchable ball percentage and he has the eighth-lowest overall completion percentage.
Heinicke has McLaurin open on this play but the throw is low and behind McLaurin. The talented receiver does manage to get his hands on the pass, but this could have been a huge gain if he were led or if it were a chest-high pass. There's a chance Heinicke could've thrown low to help McLaurin avoid getting decked by an incoming Tyrann Mathieu, but Heinicke could've had the same result if he led McLaurin.
In the grand scheme of things, it's a bad pass.
Heinicke misses DeAndre Carter on this throw, too. Carter does get his hands on the ball, but Heinicke does him no favors with a throw that is low and outside. As long as Heinicke kept it on the outside shoulder, it would've been fine. But instead, it's an incompletion thanks to the errant throw.
However, there are some things he still does really well
To be fair to Heinicke, there have certainly been moments where he looks like a bonafide starter in this league.
Making plays with his legs is one of those things. Heinicke's mobility is arguably his greatest strength.
"He's extremely accurate and he's real tough, but he's quick," said Arians. "I mean, he's really quick. When he takes off, he's quick."
Just watch Heinicke take off on this touchdown run against the Bills. It's game over once he turns upfield.
And here's that accuracy that Arians referenced. Even though it hasn't been there all season long, Heinicke can still hit his guys when needed.
Overall the Buccaneers are in a vastly different position playing Heinicke this year instead of last year. There is plenty of tape to consume and the Bucs have had two weeks to prepare instead of a few days.
But the Bucs defense still has to be on its game. Because Heinicke can do some major damage if you let him.
"This guy can really go," said Arians. "If you open up the middle of that pocket he's going to take off. He can throw that deep ball, he can throw that seven route. He proved he could play.
"So yeah, that's a whole different ballgame when you know what you're dealing with."
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