Heading into Week 8, Bill Belichick was effusive in his praise of Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. Calling him as good a player to enter the NFL in quite some while and a candidate to be a top passer in the league for years to come, the New England Patriots’ head coach did not shy away from singing Herbert’s praises this week.
It was not hard to see why Belichick did that. Herbert, after all, had completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 1,771 yards as well as 14 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions entering the game against the Patriots. He was certainly going to be a problem.
However, just like it did one year earlier, the New England defense made life very difficult for the young QB.
In fact, Herbert played his worst statistical game of the season on Sunday: completing only 18 of 35 pass attempts, he gained a mere 223 yards through the air while throwing 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The resulting passer rating of 66.7 was his lowest of the season; his expected points added (-0.154) ranked as the second lowest.
So, what happened? After the game Herbert noted that the Patriots mixing up their coverages proved to be an issue.
“We saw a lot of Cover 2. That was just one of those things that they did not show all year,” Herbert said.
“A lot of disguise. We were expecting a lot of man, but did not get a whole lot of that today. I think that is a credit to Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. Those guys are tough to match up with, but those guys on defense are pretty good, too. It was just a tough day for us, but we are going to have to get better from it.”
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, meanwhile, thought that the team’s inability to set itself up with favorable down-and-distance situations also contributed; L.A. went just 4-for-13 on third down.
“What we have to do is stay out of known passing downs, do a better job of staying out of those designer looks where they are setting their third-down defense up to engineer their stuff against your protection scheme,” Staley said. “That’s what we have to do a better job of on early downs, getting in rhythm, staying on schedule, getting the explosive plays, mix in the run and the pass, move in the pocket.”
Now 22 games into his NFL career, there is no denying that Herbert is already one of the top quarterbacks in football. However, the Patriots defense has proven to be his kryptonite so far.
Just look at it from this perspective: Herbert has had only three games in his career with a sub-70 passer rating, and the two worst of those came against the Patriots.
He posted a 43.7 last December in a 45-0 blowout loss that saw him finish without a touchdown pass for the first and so far only time in his career (he also threw two picks). On Sunday, he put up the aforementioned 66.7. His two worst completion percentages also happened against the Patriots defense, just like his career-highs in sacks (three each game).
In two games against New England, Herbert has completed only 44 of 88 pass attempts for 432 yards with a 2-to-4 touchdown-interception rate. His per-game numbers — 22-for-44, 216 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT — are significantly worse than his career average against other opponents: 27-for-39 (69%), 294 yards, 2.3 TDs, 0.6 INTs.
Two of Herbert’s interceptions versus the Patriots came this Sunday; both courtesy of ex-Chargers safety Adrian Phillips. After the game, Phillips spoke about New England being able to successfully slow down the young passer yet again.
“I can’t give too much away. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes,” he said. “You play against certain teams, they might have your number sometimes. It’s still early in his career, so there is no telling what’s down the road. But he’s a great quarterback and he has a lot of good games left in him. I love watching him play.”
Patriots fans probably feel the same way about Herbert — at least for now.