Part 25 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 24 here: Carolina Panthers. Part 26 now available: Denver Broncos.
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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.
The offensive line also improved significantly in 2021, but still has room for growth. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic this offense can continue to progress in 2022. Getting an elite quarterback is the hard part. The rest they can work on, and I think they will. They will improve to the extent they create big plays on early downs and Herbert improves on the mental aspects of his game. The upside is there.
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As I teased above, the Chargers’ failures primarily involved the defense. I was optimistic that Brandon Staley – who coached the NFL’s #3 defense in 2020 – could coach up the defensive talent on this roster and deliver a strong performance. I was wrong.
In particular, their run defense was awful. They were dead last in success rate allowed against the run. This was never more apparent than in an embarrassing loss to the Houston Texans in which they gave up 189 rushing yards and 9 rushing first downs to a ground game led by Rex Burkhead. They lost 41-29 because they could not get off the field on defense, and this loss put them in a position where they had to win (or tie) in Week 18 at Las Vegas to make the playoffs. They obviously did not.
They generally performed worse against run-heavy teams, as shown by Chart B. This chart measures the Chargers’ relative defensive Effectiveness, ranking each opponent by its season-long run rate. The defense played two poor games against the Browns and Eagles, but played generally close to average against pass-heavy teams. Even in the outlier against Houston, the Texans implemented a run-heavy approach.
They had talent, with Joey Bosa and Derwin James in particular. They suffered a few injuries – particularly in the secondary – but not enough to explain the poor performance. Either Staley got undeserved credit for the Rams’ defensive performance or it takes a while to build culture and scheme. Chargers fans hope it’s the latter. It can sometimes take time for a new scheme to take hold with a defense. But I’d be more optimistic if they showed some strength down the stretch. They did not improve over the course of the season, so I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
But an offseason can make a huge difference, particularly when the team picks up several difference-makers. With the additions of Khalil Mack, J.C. Jackson, and Kyle Van Noy, this defense has received material upgrades. Last year we saw a Bengals defense rise out of the basement with some key additions, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Chargers made a similar leap in 2022. At the very least, expect some improvement if they stay healthy.
When to bet on the Chargers: The hype train has left the station. My first bet of the year (which I gave out on February 27th) was Chargers to win the Super Bowl at 25/1. It’s now 16/1 (and lower at some places). This is a team built to contend for a Super Bowl on Herbert’s rookie deal. But if you can get any prices suppressed by the narrative that “the Chargers always find a way to disappoint,” there can be value.
When to fade the Chargers: Any team can get over-hyped, and the Chargers are no exception. I would say fade them against run-heavy teams, but I’m not sure if their run defense will be as bad this year. But if you want to bet against Herbert’s growth, you can go against the Chargers when they face a complex defense. Alternate spreads can also create value with how aggressive they are when losing.
Evaluating the offseason so far: The Chargers made huge additions to the defense and drafted an offensive lineman in round 1. They know they need to protect Herbert and improve on defense, so that’s what they did. This aggressive approach has been beneficial to several teams in recent years.
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