The New England Patriots kick off their two-game West Coast road swing this weekend when they take on the Los Angeles Chargers. Despite their record, the Chargers are providing the NFL and its fans with perhaps one of the most surprising storylines this season: rookie quarterback Justin Herbert.
The summer before Herbert’s final season at the University of Oregon, many considered him to be in a race with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa for the top quarterback in the 2020 NFL Draft. Obviously, Joe Burrow had something to say about that. But while Burrow rose up draft boards and Tagovailoa’s injury led to speculation about his future, Herbert had another solid campaign for the Ducks and impressed evaluators at pre-draft events such as the Senior Bowl.
But nobody saw this coming.
Herbert has been impressive this season, and while the wins have not followed, his transformation into a solid NFL starting quarterback was immediate. What truly stands out watching him is how Herbert manages pressure in the pocket. That was a big question mark on his game coming out of Oregon, but now he hands the pocket better than some more experienced QBs.
We’ll dive into his film, looking at areas where he stands out, as well as areas that can cause him trouble.
First, the good stuff if you are a Chargers fan.
He was pressed into action against the Kansas City Chiefs, but was impressive even in a loss. In his debut you saw some of his pocket management skills, his placement under duress and a willingness to attack the middle of the field as a passer, something he rarely did at Oregon:
Justin Herbert was pressed into action on Sunday afternoon. I liked what I saw.— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) September 21, 2020
*Post-snap reading the defense
*Placement under pressure
*Attacking the middle of the field pic.twitter.com/M9jSNIsznm
In a duel with Tom Brady, Herbert made a number of stand-out throws. You saw him challenge the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense downfield, respond to pressure, and create space in the pocket with his feet:
Justin Herbert against the Buccaneers. A lot to like even in a loss:— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) October 5, 2020
*Pocket management under duress
*Creating space as a passer pic.twitter.com/gvFubJMhRX
Herbert completed 27 of 43 passes for 347 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. In that win Herbert flashed his ability to make leverage throws, attack in the vertical passing game, and move with subtlety in the pocket:
More love for Justin Herbert— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) October 26, 2020
*Reading and throwing against leverage
*Vertical passing elements
*Putting a young QB in position to be successful
*Subtle pocket movement pic.twitter.com/PYCUVlANxZ
The final bit of good play from Herbert we’ll look at is his performance in a win against the New York Jets. Once more you will see him attacking leverage, as well as some creativity and manipulation from the rookie quarterback:
Time for some more Justin Herbert love— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) November 23, 2020
*Hanging in the pocket and attacking leverage
*A wee bit of manipulation
*Creativity and throwing guys open pic.twitter.com/fAOC4Ud44B
So, how do you beat him? By changing the expectation in his mind. When Herbert has struggled this year it is when teams change things up on him and upset his pre-snap expectations from the defense. Take this interception against the Miami Dolphins. Perhaps worried about so many Cover 0 pressure looks he has been seeing from the defense, Herbert perhaps makes a mistake when the Dolphins instead drop into Cover 3:
Then there is this interception from last week against the Buffalo Bills. Once more, the defense shows Herbert one look before the play, switches to another after the snap, and the quarterback is baited into a mistake:
Herbert has certainly been impressive, and he is likely making a strong case for Offensive Rookie of the Year. But you best believe that Bill Belichick is going to have some tricks up those sleeves of his on Sunday afternoon.