One thing I was struck by during research for this article was a tendency to praise Justin Herbert for his debut back-to-back 300-yard passing days. I believe there are many things to praise Herbert for, including his rise to stardom at Oregon, his first offseason as an NFL player and his first two starts for the LA Chargers, in many respects.
But yards can be empty, especially in 2020, and that is probably the case for quite a few of the league’s “leading passers.”
Dak Prescott leads the NFL with nearly 400 yards per game and the Dallas Cowboys are 1-2. The Atlanta Falcons are 0-3 with the 320 yards per game of Matt Ryan and the Chargers are 0-2 with Herbert and have scored only 36 points in eight quarters and eight minutes of overtime with him as the quarterback.
If you want to find compliments for Justin Herbert, I’m a great person to talk to. This is my favorite quarterback in the 2020 class and while Los Angeles hasn’t won either of their two games with Herbert, the defense also hasn’t forced a turnover since Week 1 and the Chargers pushed the Kansas City Chiefs to the brink in Herbert’s unexpected debut.
I only want to implore you to consider that passing yards has little value outside of the fantasy realm and that a 69.5-percent completion percentage is unfortunately borderline average in the modern NFL. When an offense is only averaging two touchdowns per game at a time when teams seem to be scoring two touchdowns per play, there are issues at hand. There are also encouraging signs from Herbert through his first two starts, though again, we basically have to throw out all of the results until about 30 or 40 more games happen in his career and we have some more context to use.
In the meantime, we can find out what we’ve seen from Herbert up to this point, his tendencies, his strengths and weaknesses based only on these nine “quarters” and we can do a hell of a lot better than yards.
QB - Justin Herbert
Through his first two starts and 92 dropbacks, Herbert’s 72% rate of on target throws and 81.7% rate of catchable passes rank 14th and eighth, respectively. He’s been blamed with 12 “bad throws” and his 15.2-% bad throw rate is 16th in the NFL, so right around the average and is only a hair behind Aaron Rodgers.
The fact that 41.8% of Herbert’s passing yards have come via air (as opposed to the yards that are picked up after the catch) is the fourth-lowest rate among QBs with at least 50 attempts. Only Dwayne Haskins, Drew Brees and Sam Darnold are getting a lower percentage of their yards in the air.
Lowest negatively graded throw rate of NFL Week 3:— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 29, 2020
Joe Burrow, Bengals
Justin Herbert, Chargers pic.twitter.com/cTFCyzWDi3
Herbert is getting 6.5 yards after catch per completion by his pass catchers, tied for the third-highest average in the NFL after Jimmy Garoppolo and Jared Goff.
But Herbert isn’t just dumping off his passes like Darnold and Brees. Herbert’s Average Throw Depth of 7.0 is tied with Ryan Fitzpatrick is tied for the 21st. Brees averages 4.6 yards of depth per throw with his many passes to Alvin Kamara.
Most yards per attempt through two weeks (min. 28 attempts):— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) September 24, 2020
Lamar Jackson - 9.8
Russell Wilson - 9.7
Justin Herbert - 9.4
Jared Goff - 9.3
Josh Allen - 9.0
Cam Newton - 8.8
Teddy Bridgewater - 8.4
Dak Prescott - 8.3
Aaron Rodgers - 8.2
Philip Rivers - 8.1
One area that Herbert has struggled in so far is deep passing. Herbert is 2 of 9 on deep throws so far, one of the lowest marks in the league for completion percentage and passer rating on those attempts. It is — as these all are — an early sample size. He’s trying though: despite not playing in Week 1, Herbert’s nine deep targets is as many as Patrick Mahomes, Matthew Stafford, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson have this year, ranking in a tie for 14th.
As to his tendencies, 73% of Herbert’s short targets have come up the middle, which is tied for the second-highest percentage of those throws in the league after Deshaun Watson. Herbert has not been throwing to his right much: On intermediate passes, Herbert’s gone to his right 6% of the time and only Derek Carr has done that fewer times. Derek Carr has not thrown a single pass to his right into the intermediate level. Which seems ... really strange.
Most games with 300+ passing yards this season:— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) September 30, 2020
◾ Josh Allen - 3
◾ Justin Herbert - 2
◾ Joe Burrow - 2
◾ Dak Prescott - 2
◾ Russell Wilson - 2 pic.twitter.com/WEC2vE1LX9
Herbert’s completions per level:
Behind the line of scrimmage: 16 of 17 (65% up the middle)
Short: 27 of 37 (73% middle)
Intermediate: 12 of 16 (56% middle, 38-percent left)
Deep: 2 of 9 (67% middle)
Here’s Justin Herbert’s week three passing chart. Incredibly efficient while throwing to the middle part of the field and intermediate range. Would’ve been 1/4 on deep balls if not for that bullshit OPI call on Mike Williams. pic.twitter.com/452e5hA8PH— Guilty As Charged Podcast (@GACPodcast17) September 28, 2020
As to pressure, the first two defenses to face Herbert haven’t come after him more than the average QB. In fact, Herbert’s been blitzed 19 times and only Garoppolo, Drew Lock and Philip Rivers have faced fewer. Garoppolo and Lock have also started two games, while Rivers is really seeing the least amount of blitzes and pressure so far in the league. Herbert’s 23.1% pressure rate is average.
Finally, Herbert’s run play action 16 times but despite the value in that design right now around the league, it hasn’t paid off for the Chargers. The offense has only gained 81 yards on those 16 play action passes; by comparison, Kirk Cousins has also thrown a play action pass 16 times, but has gained 171 yards; Tom Brady has done it 17 times and gained 143 yards; Drew Brees has only thrown a play action pass 12 times, but gained 109 yards; Herbert’s average yards gained per PA pass is closer to Carson Wentz (34 play action passes, 151 yards) and this plays into why the Eagles are so frustrated at the moment.
#Chargers QB Justin Herbert on third downs through two games:— Gavino Borquez (@GavinoBorquez) September 28, 2020
16-20, 193 yards, 2 touchdowns, zero interceptions
140.2 Passer Rating
Converted 14 first downs (12 passing, 2 rushing)
Herbert’s been so good in fact that he did the one thing that no quarterback has ever been able to do: he got David Carr to praise a quarterback who isn’t Derek Carr.
Praise has not been difficult to come by for the fresh new quarterback.
Have been critical of Justin Herbert in the past. Thought he showed very well on this 4th Quarter drive leading LA to a TD. My favorite play for him was the throw away at 6:56. He would have thrown the prayer ball last year. Thought he moved well and knew where his outlets were pic.twitter.com/a9KSwCwcbQ— Napoleon Andrews (@AndrewsNapoleon) September 28, 2020
Herbert’s next start comes Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a defense that ranks fourth in net yards per pass attempt allowed and second in yards per carry allowed. Given that the Bucs were the NFL’s best run defense in 2019, it would not be surprising to find out that they are again the NFL’s best run defense. That means more chances for Herbert probably, but Tampa Bay’s pass defense has mostly excelled through three games.
However, they faced Brees and Teddy Bridgewater in the first two games — two QBs who don’t throw deep — and then Jeff Driskel in Week 3. Against Bridgewater, they allowed him to complete 33 of 42 passes for 367 yards, setting a career high in completions and yards. But his 42 attempts also tied a career high because it’s 2020 and Bridgewater finished with no touchdowns and two interceptions in the Panthers’ loss.
Because you need more than just yards. Herbert’s working on that part right now.