The Los Angeles Chargers have a bright future ahead of them with quarterback Justin Herbert, but every player has growing pains. Herbert has found so much success early on in his career that it comes as a surprise when those growing pains surface. In the 2021 season, it has been two-safety looks.
Justin Herbert’s Cover 2 Struggles Are His Next Step
The first thing to keep in mind when finding what a young player is struggling in is how that player develops over the course of a season, and whether or not it’s the same problem resurfacing. With Herbert, you have a lot of post-snap movement in two-safety looks that have been a recurring issue in his processing. When you affect how any quarterback in the league processes a play, he will struggle. Doesn’t matter if it’s Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Justin Herbert. Now, the great players typically fix the issue after a week of film review and practice, but Herbert isn’t at the level of the previous two formerly mentioned. He just doesn’t have the experience.
Now, what can the Chargers do to improve Herbert’s odds against these coverages, looks, and motions? First, you have to dig into the root of the problem and find out exactly what part of Cover 2 gives Herbert trouble. Is it the play of the safeties? Is it the versatility two-safety looks gives a defense on the back end? Is it the lack of options in the short-middle zone of the field? These are the things to watch for when you turn on the tape, and how you can find a solution to the problem.
Is It An Issue At All?
First, you have to identify whether or not this is an actual issue. Is it a consistent problem? Or is it just a fluke? The best way is to look at the coverage stats as a whole and compare how Herbert plays against other defenses. To do this, the focus will be on the last five weeks, starting with the Denver game and ending with the Houston Texans.
In 114 reps against one-safety looks since Week 12, Herbert has thrown nine touchdowns, one interception, averaged 8.47 yards per attempt and taken three sacks. In 68 reps against two-safety looks, Herbert has thrown two touchdowns, five interceptions, averaged 7.19 yards per attempt and taken five sacks.
The stats alone tell part of the story. It is absolutely an issue. The tape goes even further into the problem, showing hesitation, lack of anticipation, and ugly pocket awareness whenever the defense throws a two-safety look Herbert’s way.
It Affects Development
A lot of these issues show regression to what Herbert was in college and show that maybe quarterback coach Pep Hamilton was able to develop Herbert in this regard. While the numbers look bad, and the tape looks bad, you don’t want anything to affect development in a quarterback. There are three things to look for in development.
First off is regression. Is the player reverting to ugly tendencies? Is progress being erased? This is obviously the worst thing to see in a player’s development process and can completely derail a career if not coached out of him, or a rhythm isn’t established.
Secondly is progression. Are a player’s ugly tendencies being erased and are good tendencies being established? Is the player in a rhythm against a look that he previously struggled against? This is progression, the ability to overcome and establish a positive in performance against something that previously threw a wrench in that player’s plans.
The third is retention. The final step to a player’s development, can that player progress and retain what he has learned? This enables the player to move on to the next step and further develop in other areas. If stuck in the mud and not retaining information, it’s hard for a coach to move to the next step in a player’s development.
The good news? Herbert progressed in year one in a lot of aspects, including two-safety looks. It means he can do it again, and the opportunity to retain that development will be there. The bad news? It’s hard to stop the momentum from snowballing. He has to not only limit his mistakes against those looks but also make plays against them.
Against Denver, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was desperately trying to get Herbert to throw the post-wheel concept against the two-safety looks.
How Can The Chargers Turn This Around For Herbert?
There are multiple things a team can do to make certain looks easier on a quarterback. Screen passes, moving the pocket, or using the team’s most reliable receiver to establish a connection, to name a few. The Chargers have been intent on calling Cover 2 beaters, but the problem with doing so is that they are generally hard throws to make and require the quarterback to quickly identify the coverage.
Against Denver, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was desperately trying to get Herbert to throw the post-wheel concept against the two-safety looks. On two such occasions, the post was open by splitting the safeties. The ball was intercepted both times, with Herbert attempting to throw into the flat, and the deep fourth.
While you have to praise Lombardi for knowing what play to call against those coverages, it’s also up to him to understand where his quarterback is struggling, and how to develop a rhythm for Herbert to settle in against those looks. However, there is only so much he can do if Herbert doesn’t want to go where the script is designed to.
Against Houston, there were two plays over the middle of the field against two-safety looks where Herbert should have pulled the trigger. Instead, Herbert took an ugly sack on the first one and threw an incompletion on the second one. It could have been two easy first down completions to Josh Palmer and Keenan Allen, but instead went on to kill the drive. These are the easy looks Lombardi is trying to present to his quarterback, but Herbert just isn’t seeing the field well enough.
It’s up to the Chargers to try and fix this in the offseason with a lot of film study, and a lot of offseason work for Herbert to try and find a comfort level heading into the next season. If it hasn’t been fixed by now, it’s unlikely that it’ll sort itself out over the course of the season. For now, the Chargers will have to focus on playing to Herbert’s strengths and hope he can find a rhythm with playoffs on the line.