Has Justin Herbert Improved Or Regressed? A Breakdown Of His Performances Against The Chiefs

In preparation for the prime time Chiefs game, I decided to take a look back at Justin Herbert’s performances during last year's games against the Chiefs, as well as this season’s, to ultimately see if he’s improved or regressed.

Chargers Quarterback Justin Herbert Photo Credit: Mike Nowak | Los Angeles Chargers
Chargers Quarterback Justin Herbert Photo Credit: Mike Nowak | Los Angeles Chargers

A lot of talking went on last year about Justin Herbert’s second year in the league. Would he have a “sophomore slump?” He didn’t. Herbert smashed multiple passing records last year and had nine games with over 300 passing yards. He proved about ten times over that he was the franchise quarterback for the Los Angeles Chargers and that everyone should just shut up about if his first season was a fluke.

Well, then came the 2022 season. The Chargers started with so much promise. And then the injuries came, impacting not only Herbert but every aspect of the team. If you listen out there, you can hear the faint whispers of Herbert’s naysayers becoming a little louder with each loss. 

This season’s been difficult for a number of different reasons. The most important has been injuries, which are often underestimated, especially when it comes to quarterbacks like Herbert. He chose to play through it. In preparation for the most recent primetime Chiefs game, I decided to take a look back at Justin Herbert’s performances during last year’s games against the Chiefs (Weeks 3 and 15), and compare them to this season’s (Weeks 2 and 11), in an effort to see if he’s improved or regressed. 

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Breaking Down Herbert’s Performance

In all these Chiefs matchups Herbert has really utilized his receivers in all phases of play. During last season’s Week 3 game against the Chiefs, Mike Williams had his second-most receiving yards of the entire season at 122 and his third-most receiving yards of this season was during Week 2’s game. Week 3’s game last year also marked the 4th highest grade for pass routes according to PFF, which is one of the grades used to measure wide receivers, at 72.9%.

And the two games this season against the Chiefs also marked the highest grades for pass routes of the entire season so far at 73.5% in Week 2 and 78.9% in Week 11. Week 15 of last year also marked the highest PFF grade for passing for the whole season at 84.2% while Week 3 was the fourth highest at 81.9%. Sunday’s game also marked the fourth-highest passing grade of the season at 71.7%. Week 2’s grade for passing this season was on the lower side at 61.8% but the injury that Herbert sustained during that game had a lot to do with that.

Herbert and his receivers always seem to be on another level during these Chiefs games. And it definitely helped to have Keenan Allen back last night, who often performs at a high level either in the receiving yards or receptions when facing the Chiefs.

With the exception of Week 3 last season, each Chiefs game has also been marked with at least one “Big Time Throw” from Herbert. There was the 50-yarder from Sunday night to Josh Palmer and the 46-yarder to Allen. While in Week 2, there was the 39-yarder to Williams and the 35-yarder to DeAndre Carter. And the way Herbert does them is always magical. Sometimes he just does a slight drop back and lets it rip. Often he’s being pursued by a defender like he was during Week 15. He had to drop back quite far to avoid pressure and just threw it to the left sideline to Allen.

The average depth of target for these games is on the longer side. Week 15 last year marked the third-highest average depth of target of the season at 9.9 yards and last night’s game was the second-highest of the season at 9.1 yards. 

Herbert’s time to throw has also improved between this season and last. Yesterday’s game marked his fastest average time to throw on all dropbacks at 2.68 seconds, tied with the game against Denver. Week 2’s time was only one second longer. During Week 15 of last year, his average time to throw was the highest for the whole season at 3.02 seconds, and in Week 3’s game was 2.76 seconds.

It’s helpful that he’s gotten the ball off quicker, especially in these Chiefs games, where he tends to be under a lot of pressure. In all games against the Chiefs since Week 15 of 2021, he’s had at least one batted pass, and Sunday’s matchup marked the most sacks he’s taken for the season at five. 

Since Week 15 in 2021, Herbert has had at least one interception in each game. Granted, though it takes two to fumble, this season the interceptions have come in the fourth quarter during crucial make-or-break times. In Week 2 it was a miscommunication with Gerald Everett and last night the same happened with Allen. Week 2 can mostly be chalked up to Herbert’s rib injury but the one on Sunday definitely can’t be. Sometimes the pressures of these games can get into Herbert’s head. It’s shown in these last two Chiefs games. 

Herbert tends to succeed during play-action. Throughout all these games he had some beautiful bootleg plays and gets the ball exactly where he wants it. Last night, those bootlegs contributed to nice gains from Carter and Palmer. Though he throws fewer play-action passes overall in against the Chiefs, his completion percentage has been higher when play-action is used. In last night’s game, he completed 11 of the 13 play-action passes for a completion percentage of 84.6 percent and completed 12 of 17 without play-action for a 70.6 percent completion rate.

Herbert is strong and can move. He doesn’t need to turn into Justin Fields or Lamar Jackson especially while he is still nursing a rib injury, but it pays off if he throws passes like this and moves the pocket a little more. And having more dropbacks with play-action will help alleviate some of the pressure he’s been under and aid a banged-up offensive line.

Herbert ultimately has improved over last season. He’s not exactly the same quarterback yardage-wise that he was, but you can see the trust he’s built with his team, especially with all its moving parts.

Chargers Quarterback Justin Herbert Photo Credit: Mike Nowak | Los Angeles Chargers
Chargers Quarterback Justin Herbert Photo Credit: Mike Nowak | Los Angeles Chargers