The opening question in my latest film study was: Has the NFL figured out what Chargers quarterback and defending Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert can do, and are they countering him perfectly to limit what the passing game can do, or are the laminations of the passing schemes the real issue?
As with most complicated questions, there’s a little bit of everything in the answer.
In Herbert’s second year, he leads the NFL in QBR rating, he’s second in passing yards, third in passes completed, fifth in passing touchdowns, and he has five total game-winning drives this season.
So, in reality, defensive coaches have done their best to slow him down, but Herbert is still preforming at a high level.
The inconsistences from week-to-week come from the Chargers as a whole. Their defense haven’t been able to stop teams from getting into the end zone. In Week 11, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Herbert had to put up 41 points to win by only four. When we take a look at the offense, Herbert is relied on heavily to create plays outside the pocket while evading pressure.
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s game plan is changing week to week based on the defenses, but overall the common theme in order to stop the Chargers, is to force them to become a short, quick passing offense.
When we look at the big plays, according to Sports Info Solutions, on throws of 20 or more air yards, Herbert has 23 attempts against zone coverage, and only six attempts when his receivers are facing man coverage.
This stat really says a lot about the Chargers. When they see man coverage, they aren’t going deep. Defenses would rather sit back, play prevent and force the Charges to sustain long drives in order to win games. Some teams have done it well, others haven’t.
In week 8, against the Philadelphia Eagles, Keenan Allen is one-on-one against Daruis Slay who is in man coverage, with only one safety deep. That safety must make a choice on which cornerback to help. Allen runs such a great route, that even though the safety decides to help out Slay, Allen still gets over the top.
Keenan Allen is one of the best route-runners in the NFL. Mike Williams and Herbert in the beginning of the year were considered one of the best duos in the game. Defenses have decided that if they are going to run man coverage, run it with two-safeties high, and force Herbert to make throws underneath.
In the clip below, the Patriots are in Cover 2-Man on second-down, leaving the only guy with separation is the running-back.
The Chargers are at the top of the NFL when it comes to team drops. When a high-flying offense is forced to run short-quick plays against man coverage, the communication and rapport have to be fluid.
Despite the mishaps against man coverage, there is always a chance that Herbert can find one of his receivers in single coverage over the top, changing the game in an instant.
So in light of that possibility, what defenses are doing to prevent the big-plays, they are running zone coverage.
This is why the 20+ yard passing plays, are against zone. Right now, this is where Herbert is at his best. Running receiver concepts, throwing guys open.
Even when defenses has disguised their look, Herbert is still able to get the ball down field. In the clip below, the defense disguises a single safety, then at the snap, he falls back. Herbert notices this and makes a great throw to the open spot.
What the Patriots were able to do to stop Herbert was blitz on second down, drop into man coverage and force Herbert to hold onto the ball, or force throws.
When the Patriots defense blitz from one side, they are replacing that defender with a defensive lineman where typically that part of the field would be empty.
When forcing Herbert to hold onto the ball for a little longer and go through his reads, while bringing pressure; mistakes are bound to happen.
Then the Broncos took this method and perfected it.
They forced third-and-longs, then ran zone-match. Herbert was forced to go through his reads and instead of making the tougher throw to the middle of the field, he forced it because he saw one-on-one on the outside.
NFL defensive coordinators realize that the sophomore slump comes with pressure; so bringing extra guys on second-down with man coverage in the secondary, has forced Herbert to hold onto the ball a bit longer than he would like, resulting in hurries or forced throws. This is why we are seeing Herbert use his legs a bit more.
On third down, they are allowing the underneath throws or forcing Herbert thread the needle for any completions deeper down field. Against the Patriots the Chargers converted on 33% of their third-downs, versus the Vikings 42% and Broncos 50%.
With his defense giving up points early, Herbert is feeling the pressure to make big plays. He must remain patient and keep his eyes down field in order to win, it wont be the run game, or his defense.