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Justin Herbert's SNF Gem Shows Why He's Next to Join NFL's Elite Class of QBs

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystNovember 22, 2021

INGLEWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 21: Los Angeles Chargers Quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a pass to Los Angeles Chargers Running Back Austin Ekeler (30) during an NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Los Angeles Chargers on November 21, 2021, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Chargers were 100 percent correct in their decision to build the entire organization through quarterback Justin Herbert, who now sits on the precipice of the league's elite quarterbacks. 

Brandon Staley saw the potential in the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year when he became head coach and knew the exact path the franchise should take long before games began this fall. 

"I wanted our offense to run through Justin Herbert … I wanted him to make it work and I think that's what's been fun to sort of get started," Staley said during an interview on "The Athletic Football Show" in June (h/t Hayley Elwood of the Chargers' official site). 

"I think that ultimately, those are the most dangerous quarterbacks you defend, where the quarterback becomes the system." 

Herbert rewarded his coach's faith by elevating his play during his second season. Sunday's performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers at SoFi Stadium places Herbert among the league's five-best quarterbacks under the age of 30. 

During the wild 41-37 victory, the second-year signal-caller completed 73.2 percent of his passes and threw for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The quarterback also set a new career-high with 90 rushing yards. More importantly, the 23-year-old made the right read, identified a disguised coverage and completed a 53-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Williams while trailing late in the fourth quarter. 

"The recognition on that throw ... they're playing trap where the cornerback is baiting him into throwing it to Keenan [Allen] in the flat," Staley told reporters. "And he's probably going to wait on it to steal it and return it for a touchdown. And Justin knew he was waiting on it. And he ripped it to Mike in the turkey-hole shot to close it out. And that's real quarterbacking stuff." 

Instead of "Chargering," the Chargers' leading man made the crucial play to swing an abysmal fourth-quarter team effort and turned it into a victory. Historically, the Chargers lost these types of games. They held a 27-10 third-quarter lead only to see the ball bounce the Steelers' way a few times with a Mike Tomlin squad that had no intention of quitting. When it mattered the most and Los Angeles desperately needed a play in what became a shootout, the best player on the field came up big. 

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To further emphasize the importance of Herbert's late-game heroics, the 6-4 Chargers currently own the AFC's sixth seed. If Los Angeles would have lost, they would be .500 and tied for 10th in the conference. 

The AFC race is wide open with multiple talented squads faltering in recent weeks. Consistency from the quarterback position, especially one as talented as Herbert, provides an edge. 

In truth, the Steelers had no real answer to the Herbert-led Chargers offense.

Pittsburgh's comeback relied on a blocked punt deep in Los Angeles territory and a fluke batted pass-turned-interception that ricocheted off Cameron Heyward's helmet. Those two plays kept it close and even gave Pittsburgh a slight advantage for a short period. Otherwise, the Steelers didn't stop the Chargers in the first half and only got one other stop, aside from those already mentioned. 

Herbert and Co. regularly marched the ball downfield with five scoring drives of 70 or more yards, including a 12-play, 98-yard drive in the second quarter. Herbert threw with velocity and accuracy. If not for a few ill-timed drops, particularly by his tight ends, the quarterback's numbers would have been even better.

Pittsburgh didn't have an answer for Herbert's athleticism, either. Every time the 6'6" gunslinger broke the pocket, he kept his offense ahead of the chains. The Steelers couldn't be aggressive, because Herbert could beat him by whipping pass after pass to open receivers. If Pittsburgh chose to play it safe with deep zone coverage, the quarterback merely gained yards with his feet.

"Part of the job as a quarterback is to move the chains by any means necessary," Staley said. "That's what he did tonight. They blitzed us a couple of times tonight where he was able to move, buy some time, then extend the play and make some first downs for us. He was fantastic."

Inglewood, CA, Sunday, November 14, 2021 -Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley on the sidelines during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at SoFi Stadium. Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Robert Gauthier/Getty Images

The 533 yards surrendered are the most by a Steelers defense since 2013, per Trib Live's Joe Rutter. Granted, Pittsburgh didn't have T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick or Joe Haden in the lineup. Nonetheless, the Chargers moved the ball easily on a well-coached team and Herbert is the biggest reason as to why.  

From a league-wide perspective, Herbert should be considered in the same category as the Dallas Cowboys' Dak Prescott, Arizona Cardinals' Kyler Murray, Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson and Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes. Much like the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen last year, though he's currently struggling, the onus falls on the elevation of the quarterback's play to propel the entire roster. 

The Chargers do have excellent skill position players in Williams, Allen, Jared Cook, Donald Parham Jr. and Austin Ekeler. At the same time, Herbert's combination of being the league's most dynamic downfield passer coupled with his athleticism to create outside of structure make him nearly impossible to defend when utilized correctly. 

Going into this weekend's games, Herbert already graded as a top-four quarterback, per Pro Football Focus' Jarad Evans. He ranked first with a 134 passer rating on throws of 20 or more yards downfield and fifth against disguised coverages. He did these things despite behind ranking as the fourth-lowest in the percentage of deep passing per dropback

INGLEWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 21: Los Angeles Chargers Quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a pass to Los Angeles Chargers Running Back Austin Ekeler (30) during an NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Los Angeles Chargers on November 21, 2021, a
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

As long as the Chargers coaching staff creates opportunities to push the ball downfield, which hasn't happened as often in recent weeks, the entire offense opens up and creates more space for everyone else. That's when Los Angeles is truly dangerous because Ekeler is dynamic working in space. Allen and Williams can feed off one another. The big tight ends are more-than-competent working the middle of the field. The success hinges on the right distributor in the backfield, and Herbert is the perfect fit. 

In that regard, Herbert fits with the league's elite. He's helping to elevate the play of those around him even when everything isn't perfect.

As Ben Roethlisberger stared across from the other side of the field, the aging quarterback saw what he used to be. Herbert has the size, arm strength and creativity to be just as successful throughout his career. If the latest edition does, he'll join and remain among the league's best for a long, long time.

 

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

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