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This excerpt from Warren Sharp’s ‘2021 Football Preview’ book gets you prepared for the NFL season by delivering the smartest information & analysis in the fastest, most direct way possible.
As much as I love Justin Herbert, he’s not going to be able to deliver on third down this season like he did in 2020.
On third downs in the first half, Justin Herbert delivered 0.39 EPA/att, which ranked first in the NFL. Exactly half of his third down passes converted first downs, which also ranked first of all quarterbacks.
That’s not sustainable.
The Chargers had 114 third downs in the first half of games last year, the third-most of any team in the NFL. Their 95 third down passes in the first half were the most of any team. Looking at the full game, the Chargers threw 181 third down passes, the most of any team. Their 223 total third down plays was second-most. If Herbert doesn’t convert on these third downs in 2021, the team has but one choice. Avoid more third downs. And that means better early down efficiency.
Chargers: Early Down Success Rate
The biggest thing that jumps out when looking at the Chargers’ 2020 stats compared to 2019 was the huge drop in Early Down Success Rate (EDSR). The Chargers were sixth in 2019 and fell down to 24th in 2020. Their overall offensive efficiency, however, stayed league-average (16th in 2019, 17th in 2020).
So why were the Chargers much worse at avoiding third downs with poor early down offense? For starters, they ran the ball significantly more in 2020 than 2019. And secondly, their run game was much worse (21st in 2019, 31st in 2020).
On first downs, the Chargers ran the ball 5% more often in 2020 than 2019. They shifted from a 52% first down pass rate in 2019 to 47% in 2020. While that may seem small, it’s substantial. The 2019 Chargers, at 52%, were the eighth-most pass-heavy team on first downs. The 2020 Chargers, at 47%, dropped to the eighth most run-heavy team.
The Chargers’ first down runs were terrible. They gained 3.9 YPC, 41% success, and -0.09 EPA/att. No team that ranked top-15 in first down run rate was worse than the Chargers when running the ball.
If running too often with terrible efficiency wasn’t bad enough, Justin Herbert and the Chargers‘ passing attack also struggled on first down. There were notable first down splits when Herbert lined up in shotgun. Examine Herbert on first down:
- From shotgun: 5.5 YPA, 44% success, -0.07 EPA/att
- Under center: 8.4 YPA, 51% success, 0.19 EPA/att
This wasn’t just a play-action split — when the Chargers threw from under center without play-action and Herbert averaged 0.22 EPA/att. Likewise, they threw from shotgun with play-action, and Herbert averaged -0.43 EPA/att. It also wasn’t a first half vs second half thing — the splits were even larger when you look only at the first half. What the Chargers were doing on first down, Herbert did it much better from under center.
The lack of efficiency on first down forced the Chargers to average 7.9 yards-to-go on second down, which was fourth-worst in the NFL last year.
Herbert performed much better on second downs, but the Chargers were still much more run-heavy than they were in 2019. The Chargers ran the ball on 39% of second downs in 2020, compared to 31% in 2019.
But when they passed on second down, their aDOT was significantly lower than first down, particularly when you ignore late-game situations and focus only on the first half. First down aDOT? 8.4 yards. Second down aDOT? 5.0 yards. It was the second-lowest aDOT in the NFL on second downs in the first half of games.
The only team that threw shorter on second down? The Saints, with Drew Brees’s arm that was about to fall off and some attempts from Taysom Hill. The NFL average saw a 7.7-yard first down aDOT and a 6.9-yard second down aDOT, a decline of only 0.8 yards. The Chargers aimed their second down passes 3.4 yards shorter than first down passes. That was with a healthy, strong-armed Herbert.
The combination of first down playcalling, the fourth-most yards-to-go on second down, and the second-shortest target depth on second downs did one thing – forced the Chargers into many, many third downs.
Justin Herbert is an absolute stud, but no quarterback can consistently play Superman on third downs as he did in 2020. New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and head coach Brandon Staley must implement a less run-centric, more downfield passing attack on early downs in 2021 if the team is to compete with the best the AFC has to offer.
For the complete Los Angeles Chargers chapter, including a dozen more visuals & info-graphics, defensive breakdown, and detailed Fantasy football implication — plus the other 31 team chapters — pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book