After their 41-38 loss to the Detroit Lions, the Los Angeles Chargers have dropped to 4-5. They still have yet to beat a team considered a genuine playoff threat, though the one-score loss in a potential signature win seems pretty classic to the franchise.
Outside observers might be tempted to blame Justin Herbert for another close-game loss. But that would be naïve to the realities of the game.
Justin Herbert Was a Star
After a rough start – missing open receivers, staring down players in his progression and throwing with some middling accuracy – Herbert was astounding. He finished the first quarter generated -0.76 expected points per play. The next three quarters saw him generate 0.70 expected points per play – a positively elite performance.
In total, he generated 0.46 expected points per play over the course of the whole game, good enough to finish in the 92nd percentile among all quarterbacks over the last 24 years we have data for. His total EPA, 21.8, ranks in the 97th percentile.
If we extricate ourselves from abstract formulas and just look at what happened on the field, Herbert showcased astounding gameplay traits. His pocket presence improved markedly after that rough first quarter, and his ability to hit tight windows was critical to the near-comeback after falling behind 24-10 near the end of the first half.
Herbert led three game-tying drives in the second half, just to see the lead slip away from him. He did all of this with just one premier receiver. Though Keenan Allen certainly deserves credit for his share of the offensive production – 175 yards and two touchdowns on 11 receptions – the fact that Herbert had to distribute the ball to Jalen Guyton, Quentin Johnston and Donald Parham speaks to his ability to raise the level of play of his teammates.
Not having access to Allen or Gerald Everett for portions of the game due to injury makes that all the more impressive.
The Chargers Defense Failed The Team
After the offense brought in 38 points, the defense couldn’t hold up. Giving up 41 points, to any team, should be inexcusable. Given the investments the Chargers have made on defense – both in personnel and in coaching – this is particularly stunning.
The Lions are not a particularly mysterious team, even if we don’t have a lot of games this year with a healthy David Montgomery. They run the ball. They like short throws and maximizing yards after the catch for players like Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jahmyr Gibbs. Of quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts, Goff ranks second in percentage of throws under ten yards.
These aren’t inscrutable enigmas carved in a cryptic language, these are fairly obvious features of the Lions offense. Stubbornly sticking with the same defensive scheme that takes defenders out of the box on running plays and away from the ball on half of Lions passing plays.
And though the Lions did throw deep – one completion on two deep attempts for 46 yards – the Chargers neglected the middle of the field and the short/intermediate passes the Lions rely on. 22 of 33 pass attempts were below ten yards and they constituted 170 of the 333 passing yards the Chargers gave up. Another 117 came in the 10 to 20-yard range the Chargers have had the most difficulty with, which means they gave up 14.6 yards per attempt every time the Lions wanted to throw just past the sticks.
The run game was soft, too. They gave up 0.44 expected points per run. For context, the Dolphins generated 0.33 expected points per run in their 70-point outing against the Denver Broncos. The Lions’ success rate, 53 percent, was the same as the Dolphins’ in that record-setting night.
David Montgomery has only had one run longer than the 75-yard scamper he secured against Los Angeles – an 80-yard run against the abysmal 2020 Texans.
Much of that has to do with how the Chargers align their fronts – the width of their best linemen can help maximize pass rush opportunities but creates opportunities for a competent offensive line to create holes – but poor tackling angles and poor tackling form were just as much to blame.
Without a miracle performance from the special teams unit this week, there wasn’t much the Chargers could do. After scoring touchdowns on five consecutive drives, Los Angeles somehow fell behind a Lions team willing to punt at their own 37 and unable to convert one of their signature fourth-down tries early on.