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Justin Herbert Masks Unfixable Issues for Playoff-Bound Los Angeles Chargers

Brent SobleskiDecember 27, 2022

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Monday, Dec. 26, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
AP Photo/AJ Mast

Justin Herbert is the grown-up, real-life version of a kid running around the yard shooting fake lasers, going "pew-pew," and hitting his intended target, even in an imaginary world where such things shouldn't even be possible.

Every week, a jaw-dropping pass or two can be found on tape—the types of throws only capable of being completed by two or three people walking the planet. Because of the awe-inspiring natural ability found at the game's most important position, the rest of the Chargers' performance tends to be overlooked on a weekly basis.

Where there's a Herbert, there's a way. The previous statement will be true no matter how well Los Angeles performs in the postseason after clinching a playoff berth with Monday's 20-3 victory over the dreadful and dysfunctional Indianapolis Colts.

Nonetheless, the surrounding cast around Herbert is suspect, and the team has had to work to get where it's at despite a three-game winning streak and winning four of five.

Take a quick look at how the team emerged victorious in those instances:

  • A 20-yard punt return followed by a 38-yard touchdown drive, including a two-point conversion, in the final 1:33 allowed the Chargers to overtake the Arizona Cardinals in Week 12. 
  • What once looked like a solid victory against the Miami Dolphins the following week turned out not to be as impressive, with Mike McDaniel's squad losing four straight contests. 
  • Los Angeles allowed the Tennessee Titans to score the game-tying touchdown with 48 seconds left. Thankfully, Herbert orchestrated a game-winning drive with the remaining time before Cameron Dicker converted a 43-yard field goal. 
  • The Colts, who are on their third starting quarterback this season, actually kept the game close in the first half and allowed only 10 points. Indianapolis couldn't muster much of anything on offense, as per usual, thus the final 17-point spread. 

The Chargers are stacking wins but not doing so in convincing fashion.

To be fair, any win is a good win in the NFL. Both sides of the ball are getting paid to perform. The concern for the Chargers is whether they have enough to compete for an actual championship or get bounced quickly out of the postseason.

Again, Herbert is special. Quality quarterback play will always keep a team in games. During Monday's contest, he laced a pass to Keenan Allen that nearly turned into one of the season's best touchdowns on a halfback throwback call.

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The angle of the throw, combined with the velocity and ball placement, is simply astounding. Other than Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, another NFL quarterback probably isn't making that throw. Even if they do, it's not with the same efficiency. These are the types of things to expect from Herbert. They've become normalized. And they're exactly what keeps the Chargers afloat even in the most critical situations.

"He had his best when his best was required," Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said of Herbert last week after the team's game-winning drive against the Titans. "You saw all the things that make him special there. His resilience, his poise, his playmaking."

Against the Colts, Herbert faced a single-game career high in pressure rate yet still completed plus-10.2% of his passes over expected, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

The 2020 sixth-overall draft pick hasn't let up since he entered the league. He won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after breaking the first-year passing touchdown record. Herbert already set the passing record through a quarterback's first three seasons. His potential is on the same level as those previously mentioned elite signal-callers, with more to come.

"He's just getting better, he's just starting," wide receiver Keenan Allen told reporters two weeks ago. "He's about to blow this league away."

But even the best quarterbacks need help. In order for their sorcery to truly take hold, a quality surrounding cast is necessary. Therein lies the potential problem with the Chargers and where they go from here. Allen did his job with 11 receptions for 104 yards against Gus Bradley's defense.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 26: Keenan Allen #13 of the Los Angeles Chargers makes a reception against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 26, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

However, concerns can be found elsewhere.

Injuries to both tackle spots forced sixth-round rookie Jamaree Salyer to play left tackle, with Trey Pipkins III once again on the strong side. Furthermore, fellow rookie Zion Johnson is at right guard. As stated, the Colts applied consistent pressure on Herbert, sacked him four times and added seven hits.

How this unit holds up against pressure-packed opponents will play a critical factor in the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills are all potential opponents, who also happen to be ranked top 10 in sacks this season.

It should also come as no surprise with a rebuilt front that Los Angeles ranks among the league's worst rushing attacks. Austin Ekeler and Co. averaged a paltry 3.2 yards per carry on Monday.

Conversely, the Chargers defense remains soft up front. Surprisingly, Indianapolis chose not to employ a run-heavy approach, with only 14 total carries. Even so, the Colts averaged 4.9 yards per carry, with Zach Moss at 5.4 during his team-leading 12 totes.

Staley's defense has played much better as of late, and the scheme is predicated on light boxes to prevent big plays and create turnovers. Both of those things occurred in Indianapolis. However, the league's worst unit in average yards per carry allowed will show itself at some point against top competition.

Defensive end Joey Bosa, who is expected to return to practice this week per Bridget Condon and Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, should provide a significant boost. How effective he is at setting the edge and making plays in the backfield after battling a significant groin injury remains to be seen. But a healthy version can be a difference-maker.

While Bosa may be returning, safety Derwin James Jr. could miss some time. The three-time Pro Bowler is currently in the concussion protocol after a hit against Colts wide receiver Ashton Dulin that resulted in flag and an immediate ejection.

Quarterback play is the most influential aspect to success or failure in the NFL. But it's a team sport, and other areas of the roster can be exploited. Good coaching staffs will find the weak links. In the Chargers case, Herbert can be their sharpshooter, but the team is still firing blanks from the trenches.


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.