Los Angeles Times

Chargers need Herbert to provide a leg up

Quarterbac­k’s ability to scramble vital as injury woes continue for his teammates.

- By Jeff Miller

Officially, he rushed only one time for three yards Sunday.

Those numbers fail miserably in expressing the value of Justin Herbert’s feet in the Chargers’ 20-17 victory in Atlanta.

For the first time since he suffered fractured rib cartilage in Week 2, Herbert looked genuinely nimble as he navigated his way in and around various angry Falcons while leading his team to a last-play, comeback win.

“We felt like he was at a good enough point to start activating a little bit more of that,” coach Brandon Staley said afterward. “I thought that was an advantage for us, trying to create more plays outside the pocket. We needed that.”

Herbert’s ribs appear to have improved gradually over the last seven weeks. He had an extended period to heal before facing Atlanta because the Chargers didn’t play in Week 8.

Then, against the Falcons, he displayed his rediscover­ed mobility at a time when the offense desperatel­y needed something.

The Chargers had gone three and out on their first two series before staring at third and 15 on their third possession nearly three minutes into the second quarter. They already trailed 10-0.

Standing in the pocket with defenders encircling him, Herbert stepped forward, moved to his right and fired to Joshua Palmer over the middle for a 25-yard gain. Twelve plays later, the Chargers were in the end zone.

The completion was the offense’s most explosive play of the afternoon and Herbert’s longest connection in terms of air yards over the last three games.

With Mike Williams (ankle) and Keenan Allen (hamstring) mending and unavailabl­e and Jalen Guyton (knee) gone for the season, Herbert and the Chargers (5-3) have had to adjust to a quicker, shorter passing approach.

By being able to move with more confidence Sunday, Herbert forced Atlanta to honor his legs while also giving his teammates greater opportunit­ies down the field.

“You’re going to have to do that when your premium guys aren’t out there all the time,” Staley said. “You’re going to have to use your legs to create some space and create some time for your guys.”

The quarterbac­k’s sore ribs also played a part in the toned-down offensive scheme as the coaching staff tried to protect Herbert from further injury. Losing Herbert in all probabilit­y would torpedo the Chargers’ season.

Through the first eight games of his rookie year, Herbert carried 37 times for 176 yards and three touchdowns. He had 28 rushes for 95 yards and two scores through eight games in 2021.

So far this season, Herbert has 22 carries for 51 yards and no touchdowns.

“You’re just trying to be smart ...” Staley said. “When you feel like he’s good [physically], now it opens up more options for you.”

Herbert’s lone run against the Falcons came late in the fourth quarter, on the play immediatel­y before Austin Ekeler fumbled. Herbert rolled right and gained three yards before being twisted to the ground by linebacker Mykal Walker.

The tackle was awkward — particular­ly given Herbert’s ribs — as he looked to be stuck somewhere between sliding and lunging as Walker closed.

“I don’t worry about Justin like that,” Staley said Monday. “He does a very good job protecting himself. ... He’s not one of these guys that puts himself in harm’s way very often because he’s a very smart player, very calculated . ... He’s a strong guy. I know that he can take it.”

Herbert’s legs could prove vital as the Chargers face back-to-back daunting challenges in surging San Francisco and Kansas City, which again sits atop the AFC West.

Williams likely will miss both games, and Allen would have to improve quickly to be available against the 49ers. He was unable to practice last week. Herbert’s legs might be nearly as important as his right arm as the Chargers try to remain on track for a postseason berth.

“You change the math when you can move your legs,” Staley said.


The Chargers lost another key contributo­r Sunday when defensive lineman Austin Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury. Staley said Johnson has a fracture and an MCL sprain. He joins Guyton, cornerback J.C. Jackson and left tackle Rashawn Slater as players gone for the season, though there’s a chance Slater could return for the playoffs if the Chargers get there . ... Right tackle Trey Pipkins III aggravated his left knee sprain at Atlanta and couldn’t finish the game. Staley said it was too early to know whether Pipkins will be available to face San Francisco on Sunday.

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