It’s been talked about all week and the day is finally here, the Las Vegas Raiders have a chance to make their second playoff appearance since 2003 with a win on Sunday Night Football tonight. Standing in the Raiders' way are Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers, who are also fighting to keep their postseason hopes alive.
In just two seasons, Herbert has managed to take the NFL by storm. He was the Rookie of the Year in 2020 and has thrown for 4,631 yards and 35 touchdowns in 2021. Those figures ranked third and tied for third heading into Week 18.
The Chargers’ signal caller is also Pro Football Focus’ third-highest graded quarterback overall (89.4) and sixth in passing grade (84.8). He has 22 big time throws (BTT) - tied for 13th most - to go along with the third-fewest turnover worthy plays (TWP) among passers with at least 10 starts and the lowest TWP rate at 1.5 percent, a couple of PFF’s staple quarterback metrics.
What might be most surprising about Herbert’s low turnover numbers is they haven’t come at the expense of pushing the ball down the field, as he ranks eighth in yard per attempt at 7.6.
So, with such an important game against a prolific passer, it begs the question of how Las Vegas’ defense can stop or even just slow Herbert down?
Field Zone Numbers
To answer the question above, we’ll start by looking at some advanced statistics on Herbert’s passing in different areas of the field: short or zero to nine yards past the line of scrimmage, intermediate or 10-19 yards past the line of scrimmage, and deep or 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. This will give us a baseline idea of what type of throws the Raiders may/should try and force him to complete.
Herbert is very precise on his short tosses. On such throws, he boasts an 84.0 PFF grade which is tied for the third-highest mark, 18 touchdowns - tied for the second-most - and a passer rating of 105.8 - tied for the fifth-highest at the position.
While he does have six interceptions when throwing to this area of the field, he’s been credited with zero TWPs so none of those picks have been his fault. The Oregon product doesn’t have a BTT in the short-range, but those are hard to come by as Derek Carr is actually tied for the league lead with one.
Herbert only has the 18th-best adjusted completion percentage (83.3 percent) on short throws, but he‘s only 5.3 percent off of the top spot, so there’s very little variation from player to player in that metric. For comparison’s sake, the difference between the best and 18th adjusted completion percentage on deep passes is 16.1 percent, and it’s 20.1 percent on intermediate throws.
In summary, it’s pretty safe to say that the young quarterback is pretty good when throwing at or nine yards past the line of scrimmage.
The scary part is Herbert’s numbers are even better when chucking the ball deep down the field.
He’s earned a 95.8 PFF grade on such throws and that ranks tied for third among all signal callers. His eight touchdowns are also tied for third and 57.4 percent adjusted completion rate is better than any quarterback in the league this season. The third-ranked passer rating (115.4) and 18 BTTs (12th-most) aren’t too shabby either.
Additionally, Herbert’s mistakes when throwing deep are few and far between. His three interceptions are only good enough to tie for 22nd league-wide, but there’s a log jam of quarterbacks with one or two to deflate that ranking. A much better measure would be his two TWPs, which are tied for the fourth-fewest.
So, the deep ball is another handy tool in the sophomore's tool belt.
However, intermediate throws are a very different story.
Herbert’s 72.1 grade in that area of the field ranks 19th, while his 58.5 percent adjusted completion percentage and 84.4 passer rating are tied for 24th and 24th, respectively. He ranks tied for 17th with just four BTTs in the 10 to 19-yard range and only has seven touchdowns, which is tied for 10th in the NFL.
Even his ball security numbers take a hit on intermediate tosses. He has five interceptions - tied for the 10th-most - and nine TWPs - tied for the 5th-most - so this is one area of the field where he’s actually making more mistakes than what’s reflected in the boxscore. That could create some opportunities for a Raiders defense that’s starving for a turnover.
Every quarterback’s numbers take a hit when facing pressure, but the questions are; by how much and how did the pressure get there? To answer those for Herbert, we’ll take a look at his numbers under pressure and when blitzed. There will be some crossover between the two categories but how correlated the numbers are will give us an idea of the optimal pass rush strategy against him.
Herbert’s numbers under pressure aren’t particularly bad, but they definitely aren’t as impressive as the ones mentioned in the introduction.
He’s ninth in overall PFF grade under pressure (61.5), and his passing grade drops down 13th (56.4). It’s worth noting that the overall mark gets a boost from an 82.3 rushing grade under pressure - seventh-best - so he definitely is a better runner than thrower with defenders in his face, and the more specific/advanced passing stats back that up.
The second-year pro is tied for 21st in BTTs with just six and is 28th in BTT rate at 4.2 percent. While his two TWPs and one percent TWP rate are both the lowest in the league, he’s also very conservative under pressure.
Herbert’s yards per attempt (YPA) go from 8.1 when kept clean - 10th in the league - to 6.1 under pressure - 18th - and he has the 21st-fastest time to throw when rushed at 2.52 seconds.
It’s good to know that he’s not as sharp and gets conservative while facing a rush, but he’s only under pressure 26.3 percent of the time - 36th out of 40 qualifying quarterbacks - so we still need to know what’s the best way to get pressure on Herbert?
Unfortunately, blitzing is not going to get the job done and clearly hasn’t been a part of the opponent’s game plan against him. Defensive coordinators have brought the heat against the Chargers’ quarterback on just 23.2 percent of his dropbacks, which is the 33rd-highest rate, and that’s for good reason.
Part of that rationale is blitzes typically don’t hit home against Herbert. He has the fourth-lowest pressure to sack rate when blitzed at 7.7 percent, partially due to his conservative nature when under pressure. His dip in YPA and quick release were mentioned above, and he also owns the fourth-lowest BTT percentage (1.2 percent) and has zero TWPs when under pressure. The latter figure isn’t an issue by any means, but it does show he’s more risk-averse when defenders are in his face.
So, Raiders’ defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is going to have to rely on his front four or use simulated pressures and keep defenders in coverage to make Herbert uncomfortable.
All of these stats and numbers are great, but we’re still lack a visual representation of what Herbert can do and how to defend him. For that, we turn to the tape.
Putting together a little scouting report on Justin Herbert for you guys, an example of what can happen with no pressure on him. pic.twitter.com/UnwPkaHYb8— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
This first clip comes from Week 4, the first time these two teams played, and is an example of how dangerous Herbert can be with time in the pocket.
The Raiders don’t blitz, which is smart based on the numbers above, but three out of four pass-rushers have one-on-one blocks and nobody wins. That gives Herbert about four seconds to get through his progressions and Jared Cook to find the soft spot against this cover three look on the out and up.
Plus, it doesn’t help that KJ Wright - the standup linebacker on the right - doesn’t get hands on Cook at the line of scrimmage to disrupt his route. All of that gives the Chargers’ quarterback a nice big throwing window to exploit in an area of the field he statistically doesn’t perform well in.
Another example, no pressure no diamonds pic.twitter.com/7x9GtC8RJW— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
Here’s another example of how not getting pressure on Herbert hurt the Raiders last time. This play comes from the same drive as before and caps it off with a Los Angeles touchdown.
Pre-snap, Herbert’s primary read here is to try and take advantage of the size matchup between Cook and the cornerback Damon Arnette. If that’s not there, Herbert will look to hit Austin Ekeler in the flat and hope for a few yards after the catch to get the touchdown.
However, with the coverage the Raiders are playing, they have a three by two advantage which takes away both Cook and Ekeler and forces Herbert to come off of it and work through his progressions.
Ideally, this is where the pass rush should start to hit home and at least force the quarterback to scramble. But Las Vegas drops a defensive tackle - Quinton Jefferson - into coverage, and with Johnathan Hankins in as the other defensive tackle, it really becomes a two-man rush. With no pressure or reroute from Jefferson dropping in coverage - not particularly his fault, he’s just not athletic and quick enough to drop and get hands on the third receiver - Denzel Perryman is left out to dry.
Perryman’s lack of coverage skills plays a major factor here too and gets amplified since he has no help. Yes, you’d like the linebacker to play tighter coverage, but essentially rushing two and only getting assistance from a defensive lineman in coverage is just not a winning formula schematically.
It's not much, but Crosby is able to collapse the pocket enough to speed up Herbert's mechanics and save Arnette from giving up a TD pic.twitter.com/xP7jySbMpb— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
Here we go, this is an example of a successful play for the Raiders from last time against Herbert.
It’s third and two and Gus Bradley has his classic cover three call here where the free safety - Tre’von Moehrig - is cheating to the passing strength/the three-receiver side. That essentially creates a one-on-one matchup with the boundary corner and wide receiver - Damon Arnette and Mike Williams - on the defense’s left. Arnette plays press and ends up getting cooked at the line of scrimmage by Williams, and with Moehrig cheating to the right, Williams is wide open for what could be a touchdown.
However, Maxx Crosby turns speed to power and collapses the pocket a bit with a bull rush, which slightly hinders Herbert’s ability to finish this throw and maybe even gets him to get rid of the ball a half-second before he’d ideally like to. Even though it’s not much, Crosby is able to collapse the pocket enough to affect the quarterback.
The result is an overthrow and Crosby essentially saves Arnette and the Raiders from giving up a long touchdown pass. Notice that Las Vegas only rushed four and forced the gunslinger into a bad throw.
Even better than the previous example, Crosby gets a piece of Herbert's arm and takes away another open throw pic.twitter.com/xS06fo7fPK— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
Another example of how pressure saved the day for the Raiders last time against the Chargers.
Los Angeles is running a two-minute drill right before the half and Bradley calls cover one where Moehrig is playing deep, the outside corners - Casey Hayward and Amik Robertson - have widest receivers to their side, Abram is one on one with Cook while Hobbs has the inside wideout in the boundary. The two backers - Perryman and Littleton - combo the running back where if the back works to the right flat, Littleton will take him, and if he goes anywhere from the middle of the field to the left flat, he’s Perryman’s responsibility.
It looks like Herbert is trying to get this ball to the widest receiver on the right running the curl, which is a smart decision since the Raiders cornerbacks are in off coverage. The throw is open for a first down, and maybe more after the catch, but Crosby wins around the edge and can get a piece of Herbert’s arm to force an incompletion
Again, notice that Las Vegas only rushes four and forces Herbert to work through his progression, creating more time for the rush to get there.
No dominant pass rush win but Ngakoue reads PA and gets in Herbert's face to take away another opportunity for a big play (dig by RWR) pic.twitter.com/j1QQsNaP1k— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
This next play doesn’t feature a dominant pass rusher like the last few did, but it is another example of how pressure can impact Herbert.
The Bolts are running play-action here and leave Yannick Ngakoue unblocked, hoping he’d crash down with the outside zone run action to the right. However, Ngakoue does a great job of recognizing the fake, sticking his inside foot in the ground and redirecting his path to the quarterback.
That forces Herbert to backpedal and get rid of the ball from an awkward platform, leading to an uncatchable pass. Take a look at the receiver on the top of the screen.
He’s running a dig route in the area between the linebackers and safety and is open since the play-action holds the backers for a second. Herbert wants to hit the wideout on the dig but the pressure won’t allow him to since he can’t get his feet set and has to essentially just throw the ball away.
Gotta change the picture on Herbert post-snap. Broncos give a 2-high look pre-snap and roll to Cover 1, resulting in Herbert coming off the right side of the progression and missing the nickel corner slipping to open the out by the slot pic.twitter.com/RtAGS8HxgM— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
Here’s an example of something the Raiders can do to mess with Herbert’s processing. He’s not as sharp going through his progressions when the picture changes post-snap.
What I mean by that is the Broncos are going to show a two deep safeties look pre-snap with the field safety at the top of the screen lining up over the slot receiver and outside the hash, and the two defensive backs at the bottom of the screen over the tight ends.
To make it more complicated, Denver has No. 30 - the inside DB at the bottom - sink initially to help sell the two-high look. However, the boundary safety works for depth and slightly towards the middle of the field - he’s still cheating to the passing strength a bit - so that the defense can play cover one, a one-high coverage.
That confuses Herbert by getting him off his right side read and causing him to miss the easy completion on the out route in the slot. Pre-snap, it looked like Denver would have a three on two advantage on the defense’s left/offense’s right, but that ended up not being the case.
Instead, Hebert works back to left and thinks the curl is open, but No. 30 has actually baited him into this throw and is able to drive on the receiver to deliver a big hit at the catch point to force an incompletion.
This is a wrinkle that Bradley can implement to confuse the young gunslinger tonight.
Another missed opportunity by Herbert when the picture changes post-snap, watch the slot WR at the bottom of the screen pic.twitter.com/uexOaJIi0U— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
Here’s another example of Herbert missing a read when the picture changes post-snap.
Denver gives him a two-high look pre-snap but rolls to a fire zone, cover three coverage. With Los Angeles running play action, Herbert turns his back to the defense which makes it harder for him to see the safeties rotating to single high and the zone blitz coming.
By the time the quarterback gets his head around, he’s thoroughly confused because the coverage is completely different from what he saw before the play.
Ideally, he’d quickly recognize the nickel blitz and that no one is protecting the near hash, then hit the slot receiver running the over route which could easily be a touchdown with a decent run after the catch. But, Herbert doesn’t recognize it, gets flushed out of the pocket and makes an inaccurate throw for an incompletion.
So, while we know that he’s good against the blitz based on the numbers, one way that Bradley can still effectively manufacture pressure is to couple a blitz with rolled coverage to at least make Herbert think for another second.
Ancillary effect of the last clip.— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
Herbert's expecting the deep over route from the slot to be open again, it isn't but Keenan Allen is (bottom WR) and this goes down as a missed opportunity pic.twitter.com/z71QelwEXB
On this one, we are going to see the ancillary effects of the last clip.
This time the Broncos don’t change their coverage post-snap but the Chargers are running the a similar play as before with a play action pass and an over route from the slot receiver. I can almost guarantee that the coaching staff showed Herbert a still of the over route being wide open on the last play, so that’s what he’s looking for this time around.
However, Denver doesn’t bring the nickel or blitz at all and the other safety is protecting the hash, meaning the slot receiver is well covered. Watch the bottom wide receiver - Mike Williams - though.
With the boundary corner squatting - playing in the underneath zone - at the top of the quarterback’s drop, Williams has cleared the squat corner and is open. All Herbert has to do is put the ball over the linebacker’s head and lead Williams up the field a bit and this is a big play.
Instead, he’s locked on to the slot receiver though and doesn’t pull the trigger. By the time the over route gets open, it’s too late as the pressure has already gotten there and it’s another missed opportunity.
Combo of pressure with 4 and rolling safeties gets to Herbert pic.twitter.com/XTbSwgi9Bw— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
This is a great example of the combination of the two topics we’ve been looking at for stopping Herbert, pressure with four while changing the picture post-snap.
It’s third and six and the Broncos are showing two high safeties with pressed corners, a common two-man/cover five pre-snap look. The corners playing press also means the quarterback has to be on alert for free rusher since he’s in empty and there are five defenders in the box, a lot of clutter for a young QB’s mind.
Post-snap, Denver doesn’t blitz but they do roll their safeties with the field free safety - top of the screen - crashing down towards the sticks to take away the crosser and vacating the right side - from the offense’s perspective - of the field. The boundary safety rolls back toward the goal line, creating more space for the trips receivers on the offense’s left to operate.
Allen - outside slot receiver - beats his man off the line of scrimmage and Herbert has a chance to let it rip before the defensive tackle gets there. But the combination of the change in coverage and the Broncos’ ability to get pressure with four scared him away from the throw. You can tell on the endzone view he wanted it too as he pump fakes right before the sack.
Pressure w/ 4 once again and this should be a pick pic.twitter.com/ifgv3PG0gY— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
Pressure with four strikes again!
The Broncos play man coverage here and the boundary receiver - bottom of the screen - wins across the field on the dig route but Herbert can’t throw it right away because he has pressure in his face. He starts to scramble and get in “get rid of it” mode so he doesn’t see that the strong safety is playing over five yards off the tight end on the flat route.
It’s first and 10 so the defender will give up the completion and just rally to make the tackle. Herbert buys enough time to finally hit the dig but the safety reads it and should intercept this pass.
Pressure w/4 again and this time the Broncos and Patrick Surtain capitalize on a flat throw from Herbert pic.twitter.com/LxoTtEFoZa— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) January 9, 2022
This time the Broncos finish the play. It’s third and long so Denver is just going to sit back in a deep zone and let the pass rush get there with four.
They have a line game going on at the top and the bottom defensive tackle eventually breaks through with his rush. Down the field, Herbert might have a small window around the 10-yard line that he could try and hit Allen in, but that would take a hell of a throw and is risky so it’s hard to fault him for pulling that down, especially with the pressure coming.
However, he then starts to scramble and has a chance at a 50/50 ball with Cook in the endzone, but Herbert throws it too flat and short, and Patrick Surtain II picks it.