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If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I love Justin Herbert. After his rookie year I said that if I was starting a franchise, he would be in contention for my second-most desirable player (after Mahomes). Right now, he’d still be behind Josh Allen, but it’s close because of the upside he has as a player. He plays within context and constantly makes clutch throws, displaying accuracy even under pressure. We all know he has a cannon for an arm, but his lasting impression comes from the 12-yard throws on 3rd-and-11 where he puts the ball where only his receiver can get it.
I recently wrote about how I think Aaron Rodgers’ lack of risk-taking in the regular season could negatively impact his performance on high-leverage plays in the playoffs. Herbert is the anti-Rodgers. Thanks in part to Lombardi’s conservative play-calling and Staley’s aggressive decision-making on 4th down, he is constantly in do-or-die situations on third and fourth down. They Chargers did not run the ball particularly well and frequently passed short on early downs, leading to a ton of third downs for the second straight year. Once again, they performed at their best on third down, leading the league in total conversions on third/fourth down and finishing 2nd in DVOA on third/fourth and long. I suspect that, if the Chargers make the playoffs 2022, Herbert will be ready for the big stage.
Of course, they didn’t make the playoffs. That’s partly on the defense, but it also points to an issue with the offense: despite being pass-heavy on early downs, these passes weren’t generating enough 1st downs. It’s really important to have a quarterback who can make difficult conversions, but relying on it constantly is not the best way to run an offense. They need more explosive plays on early downs, particularly with an uninspiring run game. They also finished only 19th on third/fourth down and short, indicating they lacked the power running game that makes short conversions easy.
Herbert’s rookie-year struggles against complex coverage schemes and exotic blitzes also continued in 2021. Most elite quarterbacks thrive against the blitz because they can abuse breakdowns in coverage. Herbert is not there yet. But he keeps his head up in the face of pressure and should improve in this area based on his play style. Unlocking high performance in these situations will be the final piece of the puzzle. As it is, this offense performed better against teams that did not blitz:
He handled the blitz okay, but his worst performance came against the blitz-heavy Ravens. And after blanking the Chargers 45-0 in Herbert’s rookie year, the Patriots - known for their coverage schemes that routinely fluster inexperienced quarterbacks - gave him trouble again in 2021. But the other trait that elite quarterbacks possess is the ability to succeed regardless of weapons. In 2020 he kept performing at a high level even without Keenan Allen. He does not rely on one receiver, and gets big plays out of a bunch of no-name receivers. He looks all over the field and he’s still learning.
There are some mental elements to the game that Herbert could improve. For example, against the Ravens, he targeted Marlon Humphrey in single coverage on a key fourth down attempt when Humphrey was, by far, the Ravens’ best cover corner. On other key downs he looked first to Jaylen Guyton. They lost this game 34-6 because of those high-leverage misses. Again, some of the mental aspects of his game aren’t quite there. But he’s getting the meaningful reps, and I think he will learn from those situations.
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