Two weeks ago, I attended the game between the Chargers and Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. It was a fun game, full of big hits, interesting schemes and a rocking Philly crowd. It came down to the wire, too, with the Chargers winning 27-24 on a field goal in the final seconds.
I spent much of that afternoon watching the two young quarterbacks on display. Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts, a player I liked for the Steelers’ as a second-round pick two years ago, carried the Eagles for much of the contest. Hurts is improving every week and gives them a puncher’s chance on offense. Philly is averaging 30 points per game over the past month and is finding an identity behind their young signal-caller.
The star of the show, however, was L.A.’s Justin Herbert. My goodness. I haven’t been that awestruck watching a kid play quarterback in a long time. Herbert wasn’t good against the Eagles. He was great. 32-38 passing, 356 yards, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions and a rushing touchdown. He was poised. His pre-snap reads of Philly’s coverages were excellent. His release was lightning-quick. His accuracy was deadly. Everything about Herbert said franchise quarterback. He was, in short, a dude.
Fast-forward to this past weekend. The Steelers, minus Ben Roethlisberger, played to a depressing 16-16 tie with the winless Detroit Lions. They played without passion, could not tackle, committed egregious turnovers and were quarterbacked by a player who once again cast doubts on his prospects as Roethlisberger’s heir. While the circumstances under which Mason Rudolph was asked to operate were far from ideal — a rainy day, minus two of Pittsburgh’s best receivers, with just two days of practice to prepare after Roethlisberger tested positive for COVID — he did little to seize the opportunity. He continued to look like a player for whom the NFL moves too fast.
Watching Rudolph slog through the rain against the Lions, I couldn’t help but think about Herbert. The difference was striking. Both players had been great college quarterbacks but Herbert’s transition to the pro game was so much better. In that regard, he reminded me of a young Roethlisberger. Stylistically, they are not the same. Herbert is a new breed of quarterback, raised on RPOs, pocket movement and the quick passing game. Roethlisberger was more of a gunslinger who would extend a play even if it meant bloodying his nose to do so. Herbert, by both design and the rules which govern the modern NFL, rarely gets touched. But Herbert is every bit what a young Roethlisberger was in terms of his confidence, his capability and the way he commands a football game.
Here’s a closer look at what makes Herbert a special talent, and at why the Steelers will have their hands full on Sunday night in Los Angeles.
One thing that jumped out about Herbert watching him live was his decisiveness. He was great at recognizing Philly’s defensive structures and knowing where to go with the football.
On L.A.’s first drive of the game, which began at their 1 yard line, Herbert was forced to throw from the end zone on 3rd and 7. With a roaring crowd at his back, the young QB calmly diagnosed Philly’s defense, which presented a cover-1 shell with a safety 15 yards deep and just out of the frame in the image below:
(A note about the images and GIFs in this article: NFL Game Pass has made it almost impossible to capture video from their All-22 film. Geoffrey Benedict has rightfully complained about this before. If you spend hours cutting up clips you may grab a few clean frames showing the action you wish to display. I didn’t have that kind of time this week — shameless plug here, but our high school team is 11-0 and preparing for the sectional championship game — so I inserted the frames as they were captured. Forgive the quality of the images, please. I’ll clean them up in future articles).
Back to Herbert. With the Eagles showing pressure, Herbert knew he’d have to throw on-time. He targeted his drop-out route against the soft coverage to his right. Watch how he hit the back of his drop and fired the ball just before the receiver made his break. It’s a nice route, with a good punch at its top, and a nice job working out of the break to gain separation from the corner. Mostly, though, it’s a play that showed great poise by Herbert as well as perfect timing and location on his throw.
Here’s Herbert again throwing decisively to beat man-coverage. This is an especially good read because, while Philly pressed outside and funneled L.A.’s receivers to the sideline, which would have forced a low percentage deep ball from Herbert, they played a combo-coverage on the slot receiver to the field. Look at the leverage of the slot corner. His shade indicated he expected help on any inside move. Herbert recognized that the width of the slot combined with the depth of the safety created a hole between the hashes. His throw was quick and precise and beat the defense to the window:
Later, when Philly shaded the slot inside, Herbert threw to the boundary. This is an exceptionally tough throw across the field from the opposite hash that few quarterbacks can make with the requisite velocity. Herbert made it look easy:
Here’s one more. On this play, the Chargers aligned in a bunch set to their left before bringing long motion across the formation. L.A. ran a zone-beater to the side of the motion and a pick-play away from it. Philly reduced their defense in response and bumped their linebackers. The fact they stayed 1-high told Herbert this was man-coverage. So, he smartly targeted the pick side, where his receiver came free in the flat for a big gain:
Every step of the way against Philly, Herbert was sharp with his diagnosis and decisive with his delivery. The fact he is also exceptionally accurate demands that a defense not sit in a static pre-snap look, unless they wish to be picked apart.
L.A. did a nice job using Herbert’s mobility against the Eagles. They moved the pocket on boot-legs and sprint-outs. Sometimes Herbert did it on his own by escaping the pass rush and extending plays. At 6’6-240, he is not a scrambler or designed runner in the mold of a Kyler Murray or even Josh Allen. But he has an Aaron Rodgers-like mobility that can hurt a defense if it loses the integrity of its rush lanes.
One way L.A. maximized Herbert’s mobility against the Eagles was through the use of heavy sets that compressed the defense. They often ran play-action out of these looks and were able to get Herbert outside on naked concepts. Here, on the goal line, L.A. aligned in a 22 personnel set with a 6th lineman to give them an eight-man blocking surface. This signaled run to Philly. Accordingly, the edge player to the top of the screen closed just enough on what he believed was a kick-out block to allow Herbert to escape outside of him. That gave Herbert an easy throw to the fullback, who had slipped into the flat, for the score:
Herbert showed good movement within the pocket as well. Take this throw, which was designed as a shot-play off of a run-fake against a cover-1 “rat” look from Philly. This play was intended to go to the post at the bottom of the screen. Philly doubled that route with the corner and near safety, however. Meanwhile, the pass rush from the right edge converged on Herbert quickly. Rather than force the deep ball, Herbert escaped to his left, where he made a tough throw across his body to the dig route coming from the opposite side of the field:
Herbert’s mobility, while not likely to threaten the Steelers in the run game, can create problems for the defense when he throws on the move. Pittsburgh will have to compress the pocket, pressure him from different angles and maintain their rush lanes to keep him from getting loose.
The Chargers tortured Philly with throws to their trio of tight ends. Jared Cook, Donald Parham and Stephen Anderson combined to catch 11 passes for 126 yards and 2 touchdowns. Those 11 receptions came on 11 targets for a completion rate of 100%.
Here’s a throw to Jared Cook, who is lined up in the right slot just inside the “50” at midfield. Cook is big (6’5-250) but also athletic. So, L.A. gave him an option route. His job was to read the leverage of the linebacker in coverage and to break away from it. Cook saw the backer inside of him fall off from his rush alignment and backpedal up the hash. He smartly broke outside, where Herbert hit him for a first down:
Here’s one to Parham. At 6’8, Parham is an easy target to locate. L.A. often split him wide to match him against Philly’s smaller corners. Here, they used him as an outlet receiver. Herbert, off of a run fake, quickly recognized the blitzing corner to his left and dropped the ball to Parham in the flat. Notice how there was no panic against the blitz and no confusion about where to throw. Herbert understood his progression and calmly found Parham for a nice gain:
Finally, here’s Herbert using Cook against cover-2 zone. Herbert stood in against a good bull rush from Philly’s defensive tackle and delivered a strike to Cook, who sat down smartly in an open window:
If the Steelers are to contain the Chargers’ passing attack, they must find a way to cover the tight ends. That task got a little tougher this week with the news that safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has tested positive for COVID and will miss the game. In Fitzpatrick’s absence, expect a coverage-by-committee approach that utilizes safeties, linebackers and slot corners. The regression of Devin Bush as a coverage backer could mean more of Robert Spillane against the tight ends, too.
Of all the quarterbacks taken in the past few NFL drafts, I believe Herbert is the best. He has all the tools necessary for an outstanding career. A great arm. Excellent poise. Useful mobility. High-level accuracy, Tremendous smarts. He sees coverages well and handles himself with poise. He’s the type of player around which a champion can be constructed.
He’s not there yet, though. Just last week, the Vikings frustrated him into a mediocre performance. Herbert went 20-34 for just 195 yards and a 72.5 passer rating. Minnesota won, 27-20.
One of the big keys to Minnesota’s success was pressure. The Vikings sacked Herbert twice and hurried him on many other occasions. They came from a variety of angles, mixing edge pressure with line stunts and blitzes from the backers. Here, Eric Kendricks (54) got to him on a delayed stunt. Kendricks did a great job locating the open gap in Minnesota’s protection, closing quickly and making a sound tackle:
Minnesota got to Herbert by rushing four as well. On this snap, their edge rushers pushed L.A.’s tackles into Herbert’s lap, which effected his mechanics and produced a poor throw. Getting pressure with four would allow the Steelers to devote more attention on the back end to the tight ends, or to receiver Keenan Allen, who has been tough on Pittsburgh in the past.
Of course, a few spectacular plays, like this interception by Kendricks, wouldn’t hurt either:
To limit his effectiveness on Sunday, the Steelers must keep Herbert guessing. Bringing pressure, then falling back into coverage and rushing four, while mixing man with zone and disguising the pre-snap picture, will be essential. The Steelers must make Herbert uncomfortable. Even then, they’re likely to have their hands full. Herbert is young, but he looks like the real deal.