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Chiefs-Chargers Offers a Test of Both Quarterbacks—and Their Deep Passing Games

Justin Herbert vs. Patrick Mahomes is a dream Week 2 matchup. But their offenses still have one big question to answer—and whichever does so first could win not only Thursday’s game, but also the division at large.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you felt like the quarterback play was lacking over the first week of the NFL season, you were right. The league’s passers set four-year lows in completion percentage, yards per dropback, EPA, success rate … I could go on and on, but I think you get it. It was a rough week for the sport’s most important position.

There were exceptions, of course, namely Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. Those two came out of the week ranked first and second in the league in EPA, and they managed that while both facing pressure on over 40 percent of their dropbacks, ranking fourth and seventh, respectively. Thursday night’s Chiefs-Chargers matchup was going to get plenty of hype regardless of how the two superstar quarterbacks played on Sunday—these are the two best teams in the NFL’s most stacked division—but they still set the bar awfully high. The 54-point total for the game is the highest of the Week 2 slate, and 67 percent of the tickets are on the over as of this writing, according to Pro Football Focus. The people are expecting a lot of points.

The game will have big ramifications for the AFC West, and it could be one of the deciding factors in the MVP race if Herbert and Mahomes can keep this up all season (they will). But it should also serve as the first big test for two offenses that, despite their success in the opener, still have one big question to answer: Will they be able to access the deeper parts of the field in the passing game?

Let’s start with the Chiefs and Mahomes, who connected on only one pass that traveled at least 25 yards through the air last week. Now, the lack of downfield completions wasn’t really an issue on Sunday. Kansas City would absolutely finish the season first in scoring if it replicated that performance 16 more times. But I’m not sure how much we can learn from the blowout 44-21 win over Arizona since the Chiefs won’t be playing a Vance Joseph–coached defense every week.

The Cardinals defensive coordinator has been criticized for his blitz-heavy approach—even though the blitzes worked better than the traditional rushes on Sunday—but the real problem was his personnel choices. Typically when an offense puts three receivers on the field, the defense will answer by replacing a linebacker with a third cornerback to match speed with speed. The Cardinals—who, to be fair, have limited corner depth—did not do that. No other team played base defense against three-receiver sets more than five snaps last week. Arizona did it 20 times, according to TruMedia:

Instead, Joseph asked linebacker Isaiah Simmons to cosplay as a nickelback, and it went about as expected. The third-year pro was targeted in coverage three times and gave up three receptions for 53 yards and a touchdown. Mahomes had a perfect passer rating when throwing at Simmons, according to Pro Football Focus.

On top of the heavier personnel, Joseph mainly opted for single-high coverage, even after the football world spent the past year and a half talking about the Chiefs’ problems against two-high coverages. We hadn’t seen a team play Mahomes like this since 2019, when the league was still trying to figure out how to defend this fire-breathing dragon of an offense. That allowed Andy Reid to dust off some of the tactics that served him so well back then. Crossing routes—which had been Tyreek Hill’s bread and butter from 2018 to 2020 before defenses started selling out to stop him—were back on the menu, and Mahomes completed four passes on them for 10 or more air yards.

Mahomes on Crossing Routes (10-plus Air Yards)

Season Attempts/Game Comp. % Yards/Att EPA/Att Success Rate
Season Attempts/Game Comp. % Yards/Att EPA/Att Success Rate
2019 2.2 58.3% 12.5 0.42 58.3%
2020 2.0 63.3% 14.2 0.86 63.3%
2021 1.4 47.6% 8.8 0.24 47.6%
2022 4.0 75.0% 18.2 1.28 75.0%

But while the Chiefs offense looked like it turned the clock back on Sunday, really, the Cardinals just allowed them to do that. The Chargers, led by coach Brandon Staley, won’t be so generous. First, Staley won’t have to ask a linebacker to stick with Travis Kelce for 60 minutes because he has do-it-all safety Derwin James to do that. And, second, Staley’s defense is designed to handle those crossers that gave Arizona so much trouble. Whether the Chargers stick in two-high coverages or rotate into a single high, they typically have a player, usually on the weak side of the defense, looking to help out on those crossing routes:

Facing a defense that’s already structured to take away what the Chiefs do best—and one that features a formidable four-man rush with Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack—will tell us whether Reid’s offense truly is back to where it was before the uneven 2021 campaign, or whether there are some adjustments that still need to be made.

The Chargers, meanwhile, will have to make some adjustments to their offense after Keenan Allen was ruled out of the game with a hamstring injury. The offense moved the ball well after Allen suffered the injury in L.A.’s Week 1 win over Las Vegas, but as was the case in 2021, the Chargers had a tough time pushing the ball downfield. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi admitted that he got a little too conservative in the second half, but this isn’t a one-off issue. Herbert, who owns one of the strongest and most accurate arms in the NFL, finished 21st in average depth of target for the week, according to TruMedia. He also finished 21st in aDOT a season ago—so we can’t just write it off as a product of Allen’s injury and the game script.

Lombari is the easy scapegoat, and he certainly deserves blame for calling plays that are seemingly aimed at moving downfield 5 yards at a time, but he is dealing with certain personnel limitations: Namely, the Chargers receiving corps. Look, it’s not a very fast group. Allen, when healthy, is more of a possession receiver than a downfield threat. Mike Williams makes plenty of plays downfield, but it takes him a while to get down there and he doesn’t create much separation on the way. Josh Palmer and DeAndre Carter, the only other receivers who played more than 10 snaps on Sunday, aren’t known for their speed, either. In 2021, Herbert’s average time to throw on deep passes was the fourth slowest in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He had to wait for his plodding receiving corps to get downfield.

If the Chargers had a good offensive line, that wouldn’t be such a big problem. But they don’t, so it is. That may sound harsh for an offensive line that did not allow Herbert to be sacked against a good Raiders front, but the quarterback deserves most of the credit for that.

The Chargers offensive line isn’t widely viewed as a big problem like, say, the Bengals offensive line, but it gives up pressure at a similar rate—it just has a quarterback who is exceptional at navigating a collapsing pocket.

The Raiders put Herbert under pressure on nearly 50 percent of his dropbacks. And while that didn’t seem to affect Herbert, it did handcuff Lombardi. The Chargers offensive coordinator couldn’t call many downfield shots without exposing his quarterback to hits, and he couldn’t really utilize spread formations because that would’ve left his overmatched line without help from running backs and tight ends.

We can’t pin L.A.’s inability to push the ball downfield in Week 1 on any one thing; it would be an easier fix if it were. That sounds bleak, but the Chargers aren’t going to be facing Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones every week. The Chiefs’ pass rush will offer a more realistic test for this passing game. It may not be an elite unit, but, led by Chris Jones and rookie George Karlaftis, it is good enough to give a bad offensive line problems. If a middling pass rush is able to put similar constraints on Lombardi’s offense, it will be time to raise some red flags.

Millions will tune into this dream matchup of two impossibly talented quarterbacks expecting an extravagant fireworks show—and Mahomes and Herbert will undoubtedly provide plenty of entertainment. One of the perks of employing an elite quarterback is that they can produce no matter what’s around them. But Thursday night’s game, and, really, this highly competitive AFC West race, may come down to which of these two offenses is able to find a way to create explosive plays consistently—and how quickly they’re able to do it.