Justin Herbert produced another stellar display in the Chargers' Week 8 win against the Chicago Bears at SoFi Stadium. His statline was a healthy 31-of-40 passing for 299 yards, three touchdowns with zero turnovers. But it was one metric that stuck out enough to make me want to investigate further: His ADoT (average depth of target) was a lowly 5.1 yards. This immediately raised a lot of questions, so I thought I would look into the details and attempt to see what this could mean for the rest of the season and beyond.
Justin Herbert peppered the Bears underneath, completing 27 of 30 passes under 10 air yards for 222 yards & 3 TD (+8.2% CPOE).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 30, 2023
Herbert averaged the 2nd-lowest air yards per attempt of his career (4.9) and recorded a season-high 60.0% success rate.#CHIvsLAC | #BoltUp pic.twitter.com/BAoyi6WHLU
When you take a look at the Chargers' most successful days passing this season, Week Four against the Minnesota Vikings and Week Eight against the Bears, a trend appears; Herbert is thriving when the short game is the primary means of attack. In both of these games he had three touchdowns and no turnovers. His ADoT for the Vikings game was 6.9 yards meaning between the two games he had an average of 6.0 yards, well below his average outside of these games which stands at 10.1 yards.
Herbert's average over the course of the season so far is 8.6 yards which has been a welcome difference to the 6.9 yards he operated at during the 2022 season under his former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Kellen Moore was hired to replace him in the 2023 offseason and the ambition was clear from the first press conference where he said "We know (Justin Herbert's) ability to throw it down the field. I’m just really, really excited to be able to work with him"
So what does this metric tell us? Are the principles of Moore’s offense working as designed? Is something stopping Herbert from finding success downfield? Should the fans be worried? First of all, a caveat is needed that ADoT is a very simple metric that can be skewed by situational context. For example, when teams are losing, they need to pass the ball further to score quickly and this throws the averages off. So we can only takeaway so much from the data without looking for further context.
My conclusive analysis of what this data actually represents is that the failures of the running game are forcing the quick passing game to be utilized more than Moore wants it to be. Across both the highlighted games, the Chargers averaged a meagre 20 carries for 44 yards at 2.2 yards a carry. This is just not going to be able to provide the balance that Kellen Moore strives for in order to have a successful downfield passing game. So to make up for the rushing game failures and provide something to keep defenses honest, Moore and Herbert have utilized quick lateral passes including a lot of pretty inventive screens.
Against teams that don’t play physical press man such as the Vikings and Bears this is ideal but when facing teams like the Cowboys, Titans and Chiefs, this simply isn't going to be a concept you can rely on and the results have been self evident with a lack of anything keeping them honest meaning they can sit back and tell Herbert to beat them.
Therefore we can ascertain that when Herbert is able to use a low ADoT to make up for the poor rushing attack then the offense is more balanced and are able to give Herbert the space that Moore’s concepts are able to generate.
The question however remains as to should the fans be worried about this statistic showing a regression towards the Lombardi days of Herbert throwing underneath routes all game long, and the answer is no. Moore’s use of the quick game is a means to an end, not the system itself and that shows up on film when Herbert dials up long shots with confidence at least once a drive.
The vertical passing game isn't clicking yet due to injuries to key players and the rushing game showed promise in Week One but since then it has completely flatlined. Without those two vital areas of Moore’s system he is having to force Herbert into a style that might seem Lombardi-esque when looking at the numbers but in reality it is anything but. So let's stay patient and wait to see the next evolution in how Moore can get the best of Justin Herbert no matter how far he throws the ball downfield.