The question was meant as a joke, but also… what if?
What if the Chargers start running the third down plays on first down
— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) September 19, 2021
Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers are at it again. It’s a new coaching staff and a new offense, but across the first two games of the 2021 season, Herbert has been significantly better on third down than early downs. This was the case last season and was part of what we wanted to watch for Herbert’s development in Year 2.
The thought was Herbert would improve efficiency on first and second down while the performance on third down was likely to regress. Well, that just hasn’t been the case. Herbert now has negative EPA on first and second down and leads the league in EPA on third down. So, what’s the deal with the Chargers’ offense?
Last year, the offense was consistently hamstrung by early-down playcalling that skewed run-heavy, especially on first down, which left Herbert in second- and third-and-long. Early in 2021, the Chargers have been more reliant on the pass and have been one of the pass-heaviest offenses on early downs in neutral situations. On top of that, the Chargers are passing more than would be expected given the situation (per rbsdm.com):
Yet, there has been a bit of a disconnect on those passes and the Chargers haven’t been able to connect often enough on early downs to avoid their reliance on Herbert’s third down magic. The production output is a significant difference, per Sports Info Solutions.
|Positive Play %
There have been some big negative plays that have caused the EPA to drop, but the 48.5% positive play rate (the percentage of plays that produce positive EPA) shows there are still problems in the play-to-play consistency.
What’s also notable, though, is Herbert’s 90.2% on-target rate, which is the second-highest among quarterbacks on early downs. It’s not as if the quarterback forgets how to play football on early downs then blackouts out to turn into an accuracy god on third down. But let’s dive a little deeper into what could be causing some of these issues and what the Chargers could do to fix them going forward.
Coming Up Short
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi comes from the New Orleans Saints and spent most of the past decade with Drew Brees at quarterback. Over the latter part of Brees’s career, the early down passing game was made up of short, efficient throws that were able to keep the offense in front of the chains. That helps when an offense can spam slants and similar routes to Michael Thomas, which made those plays more productive than any other receiver could in that position.
From 2017-2020, Brees’s early down average depth of targets were 7.0, 6.3, 7.2, 6.2, and 5.7. Through two weeks, Herbert’s 6.5-yard aDOT ranks 22nd among quarterbacks. A number of factors have gone into that figure, which is below Herbert’s 30th-ranked 6.8-yard early down aDOT from 2020. Part of it comes from the scheme that has been more reliant on shorter passes on early downs.
Through two games, Mike Williams has been the most target Charger on first and second down and is tied as the second-most target receiver on early downs in the league. On those passes, Williams just has 6.6 yards per target and a 6.1 average depth of completion against an 8.8-yard aDOT. There are also two charted drops that would make those numbers look a bit better.
Williams is getting used, partly as the big-bodied Michael Thomas role. There have been more targets to him in the middle of the field during the first two games of the season after he spent most of his time working outside and down the sidelines in previous years.
Here’s a look at where Williams was targeted in 2020:
Now here’s where Williams has been targeted in 2021:
The middle-of-the-field role hasn’t quite clicked yet. The play below came in Week 1. Williams was the No. 2 receiver in a trips set to the left side of the offense. The Chargers ran a quick drop back with slants from Williams and Keenan Allen, who was the inside receiver. Off the line, Williams got physical with the corner and got tied up before his break. That forced Herbert to take an extra hitch and fire high over the intended receiver.
But that can be just an early-season kink that will get worked out. Either Williams can get more comfortable in that role or more of those targets could go to Allen, where he’s thrived in the past.
In that short area, the Chargers haven’t been able to separate quite as much as would be hoped, which has led to some forced passes from the quarterback. They’ve been accurate but not exactly easy to catch, which also points toward the gap between Herbert’s on-target percentage and completion percentage on those throws.
Pressure & Patience
An improved offensive line was the hope for the Chargers after they signed Bryan Bulaga and Matt Feiler then drafted Rashawn Slater. An early-season injury to Bulaga forced some changes on the line and through two weeks, the Chargers rank just 23rd in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate.
When under pressure, the offense has come to a halt. Here are the splits between Herbert’s early down passes attempts from a clean pocket and when under pressure.
Early Downs, Clean vs Pressure
|Positive Play %
Herbert’s 19 early down pass attempts under pressure rank second only to Derek Carr this season. He’s been under pressure on 34.3% of his early down dropbacks. What stands out here is not so much that pressure impacting Herbert’s ability to throw, it’s more impacting how the Chargers approach what they want to do on offense. It appears clear there has been an emphasis on making a smart decision when under pressure on early downs to get to the next play. While that has certainly helped cover up disaster-like plays, it has also capped the ceiling of what a player like Herbert can do when forced to create on his own.
On a second-and-9 against the Cowboys at the start of the second quarter, the Chargers allowed a free rusher on a four-man rush. The routes had yet to develop down the field and Herbert instantly turned to Austin Ekeler out of the backfield. But the Dallas defense was all over the pass and Ekeler was dropped for a loss of two.
That play was followed up by Herbert side-stepping a blitz, hanging in the pocket, and finding an open Jared Cook to convert a third-and-12. The Chargers would eventually score a touchdown on the drive.
Later in the game, the Chargers had a first-and-10 inside the red zone. Before the snap, Ekeler motioned from the backfield out to the flat. After the snap, Herbert rushed a throw to Ekeler without much spacing or blocking in front of him. Ekeler was again tackled immediately for a two-yard loss. Had Herbert stayed and stepped up in the pocket, Allen was about to come open in the middle of the field from the left slot.
The Chargers had to settle for a field goal on the drive. The play call was intended to be quick and safe, but took a much bigger potential play off the table.
Part of what has made Herbert and the Chargers so successful on third down is that Herbert has no choice but to hang in the pocket a little longer and push the ball down the field. That last Ekeler play was set up by Herbert taking a deep dropback and throwing a ridiculous 42-yard pass to Keenan Allen through a Cover 2 hole on a third-and-15.
Those are the types of plays that lean on Herbert’s strengths as a passer. He can extend plays and zip the ball into impossible holes. The Chargers might not want to build an entire offense around that, but they also shouldn’t be trying to suppress that ability on early downs, either.
“I can’t wait to see him start letting it loose,” Lombardi said in June when the Chargers were installing their offense for the first time. The key to more success on early downs might be letting Herbert do just that.