Breaking down Justin Herbert’s NFL debut: Chargers rookie pushes Chiefs to limit with surprising success

The Justin Herbert Era wasn’t supposed to start this early for the Chargers. But with another cruel injury twist of fate for Tyrod Taylor, the NFL debut for the rookie first-round pick from Oregon arrived with a bang.

Herbert didn’t waste any time to prove he belonged in the NFL against the Chiefs, feeling right at home in his SoFi Statium opener in Los Angeles. Kansas City wasn’t prepared to face Herbert instead of Taylor. He took full advantage of it, dueling Patrick Mahomes to a 20-20 regulation tie before the reigning Super Bowl champions escaped with a 23-20 late overtime victory.

Herbert (22 of 33, 311 yards passing, TD, 8.9 yards per attempt, 107.0 rating, rushing TD) didn’t lack confidence while being thrown into the fire vs. the NFL’s best quarterback as his counterpart. Although Herbert did make one big rookie mistake while throwing an interception on a would-be scoring drive deep in Chiefs’ territory in the second half, Herbert held his own with his fearless passing and tough running against a strong defensive front.

The Chargers made sure to make Herbert comfortable by pounding away with the running game. Austin Ekeler and powerful rookie Joshua Kelley rumbled for a combined 157 yards on a whopping 39 carries. They also combined for 104 more yards on six catches on throws from Herbert.

The ball-control game plan of staying on the field almost 45 minutes vs. the Chiefs’ 30 almost worked in getting Herbert his first NFL win. But when it counted in the fourth quarter, Mahomes was able to raise his game to his typical MVP level against an elite Chargers pass defense, while Herbert simply couldn’t make enough big plays to match.

The one question mark on Herbert was how NFL ready he could be, having worked out of the shotgun in college in varied offenses. But his natural athleticism, a skill he used better in his final season at Oregon, was on full display. He also showed the accuracy (66.7 completion percentage) that locked him into being the No. 6 overall pick, not far behind Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa.

With some revelations from “Hard Knocks,” there’s no doubt Herbert, with his smarts, picked up things quickly in training camp getting reps behind Taylor. The Chargers may have intended to “redshirt” Herbert all season, but they didn’t go into full developmental mode with him, either. 

Offensive-minded coach Anthony Lynn was bound to pivot to a more friendly, run-heavy scheme after enduring erratic passing from a fading Philip Rivers, regardless of Taylor or Herbert replacing him most this season. To that end, the Chargers’ improved their offensive line with Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga on the right side, which now is more important with center Mike Pouncey suffering a season-ending hip surgery.

Everyone in the AFC West will be chasing Mahomes and the Chiefs for a while. The Raiders remained status quo at QB with Derek Carr. The Broncos’ enthusiasm for Drew Lock has been curbed with his shoulder injury. 

Taylor, Rivers’ backup last season, came to the Chargers as an asset because of his knowledge of Lynn’s offense. But the Chargers’ offensive ceiling was capped with him as their bridge QB, given he is set to become a free agent in 2021.

The Chargers started 1-0 with Taylor not playing well in Week 1. They saw Burrow and the Bengals get in position to win the game late, and then Burrow showed off his upside against the Browns in Week 2.

Los Angeles needed a similar bolt of energy to have any chance to compete with Kansas City in the division, and Herbert suddenly puts the team above Las Vegas and Denver in that department. He was up to the task vs. Mahomes and wasn’t intimidated, leaning on a strong supporting skill cast of Ekeler, Kelley, tight end Hunter Henry and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.

Herbert is definitely more dependent than Burrow and stepped into a good situation where he will keep getting plenty of help. Now that he won’t surprise any future opponent as the starter, he will take more rookie-like lumps. But given the Chargers might have been limited with Taylor, going to the upside of Herbert this early may be fortuitous.

No one expected the Chargers to hang with the Chiefs with Taylor. Now that Herbert has proved he doesn’t need a year of sitting, the Chargers are better positioned, with their high floor of running game and defense, to take their best wild-card shot behind the champs again.

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