Is Justin Herbert in a Sophomore Slump?

by Team Del Genio

The Los Angeles Chargers opened the season by winning four of their first five games. Justin Herbert picked up right where he left off after his spectacular rookie season in leading the team to this hot start. In those five games, he averaged 315.2 passing yards per game. He threw 13 touchdown passes to just three interceptions in those games with three games where he tossed at least three TDs. His 139 completions in 207 pass attempts were good for a 67.1% completion percentage. He completed at least 60.5% of his passes in all five starts.

Yet Herbert has since taken a step back as the Chargers have lost four of their last six games. It all started in Baltimore on October 10th in a 34-6 loss to the Ravens. Herbert completed just 22 of 39 passes for 195 yards for a 56.4% completion rate in the loss. He only threw one touchdown pass and added an interception.

Los Angeles returned home the next week to lose to New England, 27-24. Herbert completed just 18 of 35 passes for 223 yards and a 51.4% completion rate. He did throw two touchdown passes but he had two passes picked off as well. 

Herbert rebounded by completing 33 of 38 passes for 356 yards in a 27-24 victory at Philadelphia. He had two touchdown passes and no interceptions in the victory. After getting sacked five times in the previous two weeks, he was not sacked by the Eagles. Perhaps Herbert’s success can be attributed to facing a Philadelphia defense coached by defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. Coming over from Indianapolis where he was an assistant coach along with the Eagles’ rookie head coach Nick Sirianni, the zone coverage that the Colts and Eagles play was not difficult for Herbert to solve. New England’s Bill Belichick has a well-established reputation for making things difficult on young quarterbacks. Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh started as a defensive coach and has one of the best defensive coordinators in Wink Martindale who commits to pressuring the opposing quarterback. 

Herbert faced another well-respected defensive head coach the following week against Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings. In that 27-20 loss, he completed only 20 of 34 passes for 195 yards with a touchdown and an interception. His 58.8% completion percentage in that game was the third time in a four-game stretch when he did not complete at least 60% of his passes. 

Herbert played better against a Pittsburgh Steelers team missing T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, and Minkah Fitzpatrick the following week. He completed 30 of 41 passes for 382 yards in the Chargers’ 41-37 victory. However, after having success against Mike Tomlin’s depleted defense, Herbert struggled last week in a 28-13 loss in Denver. He completed 28 of 44 passes for 303 yards against head coach Vic Fangio’s defense yet he threw two more interceptions in the setback. 

The downward trends are clear. In his last six starts, his completion percentage has dropped to 64.9% with Herbert averaging 276 passing yards per game. He has just 11 touchdown passes in those games along with seven interceptions. The numbers become even starker when removing the games against the Eagles and injured Steelers. Against Fangio, Zimmer, Belichick, and Harbaugh-coached teams, Herbert completed only 57.9% of his passes for 224 yards per game. He has only six touchdown passes against those four defensive coaches with five interceptions. Those four coaches saw their defenses sack Herbert ten times. 

Herbert had a historic rookie season where he completed 66.6% of his passes for 4336 yards with 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Perhaps being coached by a new offensive coordinator in Joe Lombardi and head coach Brandon Staley threw off his early opponents. Yet it appears that the better defensive coaches in the league have discovered some tendencies in the second-year quarterback. They call it a sophomore slump for a reason since it is not uncommon for rookies coming off breakout seasons to maintain that level of excellence. The competition catches up.

Herbert appears to have the talent and work ethic to make adjustments. However, it may take him some time to figure out the best way to counter the defensive looks that Fangio, Zimmer, Belichick, and Harbaugh have used to frustrate him.

Good luck - TDG.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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