Are Chargers Holding Herbert Back?

Denver Broncos DL McTelvin Agim
Denver Broncos DL McTelvin Agim
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 12 - If you would have told me at the beginning of the season that the Broncos and Chargers would play on November 30, and Von Miller was no longer in Denver, I probably would have assumed that to be an easy Los Angeles victory. However, nothing is ever easy for the Chargers, including their upset loss to the Broncos on Sunday. The Broncos made the Chargers offense look sluggish as the Denver offense powered through to a 28-13 victory in Mile High. Two notable things stood out to me in this game: the importance of Teddy Bridgewater to this current Broncos offense, and how the Chargers shoot themselves in the foot offensively.

Before we discuss the passing game at all, I have to give a shoutout to the Broncos running game. Denver ran for 147 yards on the ground and 4.5 yards per carry, which shouldn't be a surprise given L.A.'s struggles defending the run. Brandon Staley's defense plays a lot of light boxes and asks his front defenders to play multiple gaps, and if they can't do that, then the defense gets gashed. Denver's offensive line was moving people in the run game on Sunday, wearing down that Chargers front with a variety of zone and misdirection looks out of multiple personnel, primarily 22 (two running backs, two tight ends) and 13 (one back, three tight ends).

Broncos Run Game

 

Broncos Run Game 2

Teddy Bridgewater isn't going to light up any team through the air, but he's perfect for what this iteration of the Broncos needs to do. He keeps the offense on schedule and can also make a lot of throws on time that Drew Lock (and pretty much every other Denver quarterback post-Manning) cannot. Take this throw, for example: Denver motions Jerry Jeudy and he runs a hook route over the ball while Courtland Sutton runs a deep over and Tim Patrick runs a dig. L.A. is playing Cover-1, and Jeudy's hook route occupies his man and the linebacker in the hole. Sutton's route takes away the safety over the top, leaving Patrick just to beat his man. Bridgewater puts the ball on him to move the chains, a good ball on a difficult concept.

Teddy Bridgewater to Tim Patrick

Bridgewater has also shown the ability to extend plays when he has needed to. When things go off-schedule, the quarterback has to be able to make a play. While he's not super consistent at it, Bridgewater made some good off-schedule plays, such as this goal-line touchdown. That's no slouch he's pushing aside either—that's Chargers Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa. Bridgewater made enough plays in the passing game to help the Broncos to victory on Sunday.

Teddy Bridgewater TD

Now when we flip riverside, the Broncos defense made life really difficult for the Chargers on offense, but it also felt like L.A. was playing on safety. The Chargers run a lot of quick game—which makes sense considering offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's background in New Orleans with Drew Brees. However, the quick game is limiting what L.A.'s offense can do, and is making them predictable. Denver was able to jump a lot of quick routes on Sunday and get their hands on a lot of passes because L.A.'s passing offense has constricted itself into a ball. That, combined with Vic Fangio's defense being built to play going forward, led to a lot of disrupted passes.

Justin Herbert incompletion

Denver put the Chargers offense in a sleeper hold for the entire game, but a lot of that is due to the Chargers' own mistakes, which I'll talk about later.

Where the Game Swung

Where the Game Swung: DEN-LAC

Quarter Down To Go Yd Line Time Description GWC
4 3 14 DEN 23 14:37 J.Herbert pass deep right INTERCEPTED at DEN End Zone. Intercepted by P.Surtain at DEN End Zone. Touchback. +11%
2 2 8 LAC 48 1:22 D.Lock pass INTERCEPTED at LAC 48. Intercepted by D.James at LAC 48. Tackled by K.Hinton at DEN 47. PENALTY on DEN-DEN, Ineligible Downfield Pass, 5 yards, declined. -10%
3 4 4 DEN 34 1:29 J.Herbert pass short right complete to DEN 33. Catch made by J.Guyton at DEN 33. Gain of 15 yards. Tackled by J.Simmons at DEN 19. -9%
2 3 9 LAC 9 12:50 J.Williams rushed up the middle to LAC End Zone for 9 yards. J.Williams for 9 yards, TOUCHDOWN. +8%

Drew Lock entered the game late in the first quarter for Denver and immediately threw an interception and had one of the funniest fumbles you'll ever see that ended up going better than expected. I think that's truly where the Chargers could have swung the game, off of Lock's interception. Good job by Denver's defense of holding on through the entire game, even after Lock entered and did Drew Lock things. In addition, Patrick Surtain might be having one of the best defensive rookie seasons I have seen outside of Micah Parsons. He has immediately been a shutdown corner, and makes plays on the ball.

By the DVOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST Total
LAC -6.4% 4.6% -7.3% -18.4%
DEN 3.3% -19.6% 0.5% 23.4%
VOA OFF DEF ST Total
LAC -3.6% 5.9% 7.3% -16.8%
DEN 11.0% -7.1% 0.5% 18.6%

By our numbers, just a poor day for the Chargers overall, but more alarmingly for their defense. This is the fourth week in a row with a positive defensive DVOA for L.A. (negative DVOA means better defense). In addition, the Chargers special teams issues continue, with the team only having two weeks with a positive special teams DVOA.

Denver is a weird team, but this could be more of an indication of a club playing well off of their bye rather than an indication of overall team performance. However, it is a massive step up from the last time we saw them, which was a meltdown at home against Philadelphia.

Unlock Your Potential

To me, the Chargers offense is a lot like the Dragon Ball Z character Gohan around the time of the Cell Saga. You can see the potential in the offense, but it feels like they're holding back. Limiting Justin Herbert, who showed in his rookie season that he can be an accurate deep-ball passer, to this kind of passing chart is a problem within itself.

Justin Herbert passing chart

The Chargers have to find a way to get out of throwing quick game all the time and let Herbert unleash the ball downfield. Whether it be by adding personnel, or switching the scheme up, that's how the offense can go to the next level (some would say it would make the offense go Super Saiyan 2).

For Denver, I think this is what they are: a team that's primarily led by their defense, who has a quarterback that can keep the offense on schedule while making the occasional off-schedule throw. Keeping up the Dragon Ball Z references, they're Krillin. His potential is already at about as high as it'll go, so honing in on technique is where he wins. That's how Denver wins—they out-scheme you defensively and force you into mistakes. Is it sustainable, with Bridgewater at quarterback? I don't think so. At some point you'll need a quarterback who can take the offense to a higher level than Denver is at right now. Currently, Denver is 15th in offensive DVOA, but the offense needs a quarterback who can make the off-schedule throws more consistently than Bridgewater.

As for this year, both of these teams are fighting for what seems to be one playoff spot. There are five teams in the conference right now with six wins, and currently the Chargers are in the seventh spot. But with tilts against the Bengals and the rest of the AFC West still on deck, L.A. needs to fix their problems on both sides of the ball to hold onto that position. Denver has almost the exact same schedule, with a crucial game against Kansas City this Sunday. Both teams will need to reach their highest potential to get that final playoff berth.

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