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The Chargers Have Quietly Turned Their Offense Into a Juggernaut

Early in the season, a lack of success on early downs frequently put Los Angeles into tight situations. A handful of smart, subtle tweaks have fixed that problem—and could have this team primed for postseason success.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

AHHHHHHHHHHAHAHAHAHAHA!!

HE CAN’T BE NOT REAL! HE’S A FABRICATION! A FIGMENT OF OUR COLLECTIVE IMAGINATION!

GTFOH WITH THIS! IT’S ABSURDITY! BLASPHEMY! THE FOOTAGE MUST BE EDITED! THE BOOKS MUST BE COOKED! NONE OF THIS CAN BE REAL!


OK, now that we have that out of the way, we can move on to the article. You know, coherent thoughts.

From the day that Justin Herbert was thrust into the starting quarterback role by the absurd mishap of Tyrod Taylor’s unintentionally punctured lung, he has been a revelation. Herbert won Offensive Rookie of the Year last season handily, throwing for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns across only 15 games. 2021 has been more than a repeat performance—it has been an improvement. Herbert’s completion percentage, touchdown percentage, adjusted net yards per attempt, and expected points added per play are all up from last season’s figures. He is not just the best young quarterback in the league; this season, he’s arguably the best quarterback in the league. Herbert hit the ground running, and he hasn’t looked back since.

The main fear entering 2021 around the Chargers’ star young quarterback was the potential that he would regress in key moments: namely, on third down. There, Herbert was a star, with a 49.7 percent success rate and a .187 EPA per play—both numbers remarkably above his average across all four downs. Success rate is, by definition, the percentage of plays in which the offense generates a positive EPA. On third downs, that’s virtually always converting the down and generating a new first down, so we can essentially look at success rate as conversion rate here. This is why Herbert’s impressive performance there was such a worrisome item for potential regression: So much of the Chargers’ offensive success in 2020 was baked into Herbert’s ability to buy them a new set of downs with his third-down heroics.

But you should already know the conclusion here: Herbert didn’t just stay good. He got better. In 2021, Herbert is looking at .228 EPA per play and a 50.9 percent success rate on third down, both of which are top five numbers among league passers.

Yet still, there was public frustration with the offense despite Herbert’s sterling numbers. First-year offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was outside of the warm embrace of Sean Payton’s offense in New Orleans for the second time in his career following a failed attempt at coordinating for Matthew Stafford in Detroit in 2014-15, and the offense he deployed didn’t seem to match Herbert’s strengths. It kept Herbert’s depth of target extremely low—before the bye week, it was at 7.4 yards, 25th of 32 qualifying quarterbacks—which was reminiscent of the late-stage Drew Brees offenses in New Orleans. The success of the passing game was built on pre-snap identification, exposing advantageous matchups or leverage, and distributing the ball quickly to a receiver underneath. As Pro Football Focus’s Seth Galina showed, Lombardi did the same thing for Herbert as he did for Stafford during his time in Detroit, pulling the big-armed quarterback’s targets back toward the line of scrimmage and hurting his efficacy accordingly.

Because Lombardi’s experience as a play designer was shaped around Brees, few of the common crutches of modern NFL passing offenses appeared in the system he built for Herbert. As PFF’s Diante Lee noted in his piece on Herbert this week, only three quarterbacks have more standard dropbacks—i.e., dropbacks without a play-action fake or run-pass option—than Herbert does. The Chargers’ rate of pre-snap motion is right around league average. That’s big-boy quarterbacking, folks. Typically, this approach belongs to veteran quarterbacks with years of experience, such that this pre-snap diagnosis and precision has become second nature: Brees, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger. Now, to a lesser, but growing degree, we’re seeing it in other rising quarterbacks like Derek Carr and Dak Prescott. To see it in a second-year quarterback like Herbert, especially one who played in such a different college system, is nothing short of astounding.

But the problems remained, and they were presented most clearly on early downs. Entering the bye week, the Chargers were a good offense because of Herbert’s heroic third- and fourth-down performances. The Chargers converted 45 percent of their third downs in the first six weeks of the season, which was the sixth-best figure in the league, and were second in EPA per play on all third- and fourth-down attempts. (Plus, head coach Brandon Staley was going for it nearly as often as any other coach in the league on fourth down). But on first and second down, their total EPA per play was 21st in the league; Herbert’s success rate of 46.5 percent was above only that of Daniel Jones and Roethlisberger. Herbert could run Lombardi’s offense—there was nothing inherently wrong structurally or schematically with what they were doing. It just needed to be recalibrated so that the Chargers were no longer living and dying on the final downs of the series after they had wasted the early downs.

I was hoping to see that change in the Chargers’ offensive philosophy out of the bye, and I wasn’t the only one. As Staley said of the Chargers’ homework over their bye: “Third downs are a part of the NFL. But, you don’t want to live like that because it puts too much pressure. There are too many variables in the defense’s favor on the third down. We don’t want to do that, and I think over the next few days, we’re going to take a hard look at our operation so that we can be more prolific on first and second down moving forward.”

The Chargers were 4-2 entering their bye week, averaging 24.7 points per game; out of their bye week, they’re 4-3, averaging 29 points per game. The record may not indicate it and even the modest increase in scoring output may not tip it off. But very quietly, over the bye week, the Chargers got things fixed.

Chargers’ Early-Down Performance

Weeks EPA Success Rate Dropback EPA Dropback SR Rush EPA Rush SR
Weeks EPA Success Rate Dropback EPA Dropback SR Rush EPA Rush SR
1-7 0.012 44.60% 0.038 46.20% -0.033 41.80%
8-14 0.062 48.30% 0.119 52.70% -0.040 40.40%
Data from RBSDM.com

This is an astonishing 180. The Chargers have gone from having one of the league’s worst passing games on first and second down, with the 26th EPA per play and 26th success rate, to having one of the league’s best: 11th in EPA per play, third in success rate post-bye.

If we filter simply for first downs, the numbers become even more stunning. The Chargers went from 28th to second in EPA per play on first downs; their success rate jumped from 24th to first. They are, quite simply, the best offense on first down in the league since their bye week.

Chargers’ First-Down Performance

Weeks EPA Success Rate Dropback EPA Dropback SR Rush EPA Rush SR
Weeks EPA Success Rate Dropback EPA Dropback SR Rush EPA Rush SR
1-7 -0.038 41.30% -0.014 44.70% -0.075 35.90%
8-14 0.139 51.90% 0.19 55.80% 0.061 45.90%
Data from RBSDM.com

The weight of creating a new set of downs in one play has been plucked right from Herbert’s shoulders—and what a great relief that is. Herbert is still excellent on third down (sixth in EPA per play, tied for eighth in success rate on third-down passes post-bye), but he no longer needs to play from such long distances or account for chunk gains on late downs.

And not only is this a relief to Herbert—it’s a relief to Lombardi as well. The entire idea behind this Brees-inspired offense is that it never gets behind the sticks or out of position. It never requires downfield passes or scramble heroics to produce a first down. It is methodical, precise, and unrelenting, and when it’s working as such, it’s impossible to stop.

And that’s the thing about Lombardi’s offense: It’s still there, and it’s chugging along beautifully. Remember Herbert’s depth of target, only 7.4 before the bye? It’s sitting pretty at 7.2 after the bye week. The Chargers’ pass rate on early downs went from 59 percent before the bye to 58 percent afterward. The only notable change is play-action target depth, and even that isn’t too big: On early-down play-action passes, Herbert’s depth of target jumped from 6.2 to 8.8 after the bye week. Many of the petitions we made for an aggressive, downfield, pass-heavy attack went unanswered—and still, Herbert and the Chargers have blossomed into one of the league’s most effective early-down teams.

So what did the Chargers change to find so much success on those early downs? The smallest edges often hold the biggest leverage in the league, and that’s the case here: They’re just throwing it to Keenan Allen more.

It sounds way too simple to say that the Chargers’ big solution on early downs is that they’re throwing the ball to their star receiver more often (and it probably is). The Chargers’ fine-tuning of their early-down offense was a project executed over multiple weeks that featured collaboration from multiple football departments. It’s hard to see the changes they made expressed in the public-facing data that we have, or even in watching the film—again, the Chargers are still running the Lombardi offense, with only small, weekly improvements visible in the core concepts that they’ve been running since Week 1.

But that’s the thing about smart teams. They make little adjustments over time, constantly refining and optimizing their offense—and when given a bye week, they take a step back and say, “Hey, maybe we should throw it to Allen a little bit more.” Staley nodded to this in his presser before the bye week, saying, “What we have to do on early downs is make sure that we’re maximizing our playmakers and staying out of those tough scenarios.”

Entering the bye week, Mike Williams—the breakout star of the Chargers’ passing game—had 44 targets on early downs. They were using him like Michael Thomas was used by Lombardi’s Saints, with tons of quick-breaking patterns that relied on Williams’s big body and bigger catch radius to box defenders out of the catch point. Their second option was Keenan Allen, who saw 36 first-down targets. Almost all of these targets to the two Chargers receivers landed on the outside thirds of the defense, as the Lombardi offense uses tight, condensed formations to give receivers room to work outside.

Out of the bye week, the Chargers flipped this approach around. Allen has jumped beyond Williams as the early-down target player and leads Williams in early-down targets at 46-35 (despite missing Week 14 on the COVID-19 list). And now, while the targets still often work to the outside, there has been a huge increase in middle-of-the-field targets for both Allen and running back Austin Ekeler, one of the league’s best receiving threats out of the backfield.

We can also see that, of the outside throws, the Chargers now heavily skew to Herbert’s right—that’s his dominant side, of course, as a right-handed quarterback. This fits in with one of the changes Lombardi highlighted entering the bye week: movement throws. The Chargers wanted to get Herbert out of the pocket more often out of the bye week, and they have. Herbert averaged 2.5 early-down rollouts a game before the bye, and out of the bye, he’s up to 3.5, and only two quarterbacks have more points earned per play than Herbert does on such dropbacks (minimum 10 dropbacks).

All of this is simple and intuitive, and I’m not sure that it accounts for the entire jump in the Chargers’ early-down surge. There are likely further edges that the Chargers have found, both in their passing game and running game, that are too minute to be captured in these big buckets of public data. There’s also probably some plain, old-fashioned luck involved. But this target redistribution serves as a ringing example of what NFL teams can do with that honest, intentional introspection that Staley promised. By pressing the right buttons, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, they can become a different offense entirely.

And that’s what the Chargers are: a completely different beast. Not just because they’re rolling Herbert out more, or that their early-down play-action is a little further downfield, or that they’ve turned to Allen more often—but because they’re doing all of that. This new-look Chargers team is experimenting and still evolving under a first-time head coach with a new offensive coordinator, and we can see those growing pains in their early-down performance when we examine it in weekly chunks. Since the Chargers have settled into their new-look early-down approach, they’ve been absurdly dominant on first down in some weeks (thrashing Pittsburgh in Week 11, obliterating Cincinnati in Week 13) and then, uh … not that in other weeks (Chargers fans will recognize the Broncos game in Week 12).

But even with this variance comes improvement. When looking at first-down success rate, which tracks just the percent of plays that have a positive expected points added, we can see that those huge spike plays smooth out into a much improved first-down offense after the bye week. It’s not that the Chargers flicked one switch: It’s that they’re turning tons of dials, ever approaching an ideal equilibrium.

For the first time in Herbert’s young career, the Chargers have taken the weight off of his third-down performance, as amazing as it is. They are optimizing football on all three downs—on all four downs, really, as Staley continues to push the envelope on that yet untapped horizon of NFL decision-making. It may be tricky to see in the haze created by that atrocious Broncos game and a few blown leads, but the Chargers are now shredding teams in a far more sustainable and impactful way.

So yeah, it’d be nice if Herbert’s depth of target on first down was like, 20. We’d see more plays like the one at the top, and I’d lose my mind because of it. But Lombardi, Staley, and Herbert didn’t build the offense to entertain me. They built it to sustain a playoff contender, an AFC West winner, a January juggernaut. Thursday night against the Chiefs, they have the chance to prove they’ve accomplished that.