Chargers face the Steelers after losing to Minnesota last Sunday
November 18, 2021
The late, great Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes once said, "Three things can happen when you pass the ball, and two of them are bad." Hayes was a believer in smashmouth football and "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense. While that would not be as successful in today's wide-open college and pro-offenses, there is a time and place for that approach in football even today.
The Los Angeles Chargers have become dependent on one player for success. If that player, quarterback Justin Herbert, plays well, the Chargers are a difficult team to defeat. When he does not play well, the Chargers struggle. On Sunday at SoFi Stadium, Herbert and the passing attack struggled against the Minnesota Vikings and the result was a 27-20 Vikings victory over the Chargers.
The Vikings have one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL, but the Chargers are a passing team, and they really just use their running attack to close out games or keep the defense honest. In his 24 starts with the Chargers, the 23-year-old Herbert is 11-13 as a starter. He is 9-2 in games where he does not throw an interception and 2-11 in games where he does throw an interception.
Against the Vikings, Charger head coach Brandon Staley felt the execution was lacking. "I think that we have to avoid negative plays," said Staley. "From an execution standpoint, there were drops today that I didn't like. There were some untimely protection issues that I didn't like. There were sometimes where a play that is designed to go for a bunch, that should go for a bunch, doesn't. Our players and coaches, we have to execute better as a collective group."
Staley is correct about the execution issues with the Chargers this season. There were key drops and some inaccurate throws from Herbert in the loss to the Vikings. When the Chargers are executing on offense, they look like they can beat any team in the NFL. But there are going to be games where the easiest way to win a football game is running the ball and playing good defense.
Herbert had one pass intercepted in the game and it was costly. On a first-and-ten from the Chargers 12-yard line, Herbert threw a pass intended for Keenan Allen that was slightly behind him and intercepted by former UCLA star Eric Kendricks at the Chargers 31-yard line. Six plays later, Viking quarterback Kirk Cousins connected with tight end Tyler Conklin for a five-yard touchdown pass.
The interception of Herbert gave the Vikings a 13-3 lead late in the second quarter. "I thought he made a great play," Herbert said. "That's a tough situation and one of those things that maybe you have to move on to your next read." It was a terrific defensive play by Kendricks, but it could also be considered a risky throw.
As Woody Hayes might say, when you throw a pass from deep in your own territory twenty yards downfield into traffic, three things can happen, and one is really bad. The "three yards and a cloud of dust" approach may have been the way to go. Establishing a running attack would help the quarterback and the defense.
The Chargers have established themselves as an aggressive team on fourth down this season, but not against the Vikings, for some reason. Following a fumble recovery at their own 29-yard line, the Chargers drove to the Vikings 40-yard line and faced with a fourth-and -four, decided to punt the ball rather than go for it. The Vikings got the ball at their 13 and put together a 59-yard drive that culminated in a 46-yard field goal by kicker Greg Joseph. That gave the Vikings an early 3-0 lead.
Late in the game, trailing 27-17 with about five minutes remaining and facing a fourth-and-two at the Vikings six-yard line, Staley chose to kick a field goal. "I felt like the certainty of points, and to give ourselves a chance, I felt like, defensively, that we would get an opportunity for us to come back," Staley said. "Then, we would be able to score and then go for two to win."
Dustin Hopkins converted a 24-yard field goal to cut the score to 27-20 with 4:36 remining in the game. The Chargers never got the ball back as the Vikings ran the clock out. Cousins completed a key 27-yard pass to Justin Jefferson for a first down. Jefferson caught nine passes for 143 yards and seemed to be open all day.
For the day, Herbert completed 20 of 34 passes for 195 yards. Keenan Allen led the Chargers with eight receptions for 112 yards. He caught 40% of his Herbert's pass completions and was the target of 33% of Herbert's attempted passes. Herbert has a preference for Allen that is obvious to everyone, including the other team's defense.
The Chargers had their next offensive series on the first possession of the second half, going 10 plays in 75 yards, the offensive drive culminating in a two-yard touchdown pass to Austin Ekeler. "I loved that drive coming out of the halftime," Staley said. "I really felt like we were aggressive running the ball, throwing the football, staying ahead of it. Just felt like our guys were executing at a high level." The question one might ask, why just on that offensive series?
The Chargers have gone from a 4-1 team that looked like a certain playoff team to a struggling 5-4 team that needs to start winning football games if they hope to make the AFC playoffs in the parity driven NFL.
Staley admitted to the obvious, that the team is struggling. "It seems every week, we're fighting to kind of find that rhythm and timing," said Staley. "It's not there yet, we're not there yet. I think our record is reflective of that, in all three phases, we're trying to find it."
If the season ended today, the Chargers would be in the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. So, despite their struggles, they are in good shape if they start playing well in all three phases. The Kansas City Chiefs have moved back into first place in the AFC West with a 6-4 record. The Chargers beat the Chiefs in Kansas City and hold that advantage, plus they play the Chiefs at SoFi Stadium on December 16th. That game could decide the AFC West, if the Chargers can get their offense going again.
The Steelers will bring a good defense to SoFi and a large contingent of fans for Sunday Night Football. This will be a tough game for the Chargers. It will be nationally televised on NBC and will begin at 5:20 PM PST. Two years ago, in a Sunday Night football game at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Steeler fans packed the stadium and brought their yellow "Terrible Towels," which is a rally towel for Steeler fans. They took over the stadium that night and they could do it again on Sunday Night.