COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — Justin Herbert has the most passing yards, passing yards and touchdowns in his first two years of any quarterback in NFL history.
However, despite everything Herbert did, it did not lead to the Los Angeles Chargers reaching the postseason.
After a busy offseason, the Chargers are viewed not only as a playoff team, but as a Super Bowl contender. Not only does Los Angeles return most of its offense, but it has also significantly upgraded its defense as it looks like it could return to the postseason for the first time since 2018.
“I am very happy with this team. I think we’re miles ahead of where we were at this point last year, said Herbert, who threw for a franchise-record 5,014 yards and had nine 300-yard passing games last season.
“After being the same offense, same defense, we added a couple of guys on defense that are going to make a big impact. It was fun going up against those guys because they made us better.”
The Chargers were on their way to a playoff berth last season before losing three of their last four, including a 35-32 overtime loss in Las Vegas, to finish 9-8 in their season opener Brandon Staley as coach.
While the offense played at a high level, the defense struggled. The Chargers ranked 23rd in total defense and near the bottom of the league in shutouts, third-down conversions and fourth-quarter points allowed.
Linebacker Khalil Mack and cornerback JC Jackson are the most significant additions on defense. Mack, acquired in a trade from Chicago, will team with Joey Bosa to form one of the league’s top passing duos, while Jackson has 25 interceptions over the last four seasons with New England.
However Jackson underwent ankle surgery on Tuesday, which calls into question his availability for the first two games of the season. Jackson will miss two to four weeks, the team said in a statement.
“You have to be a complete defense, a team at all three levels playing together. You have to play with toughness, discipline and physicality,” Staley said. “The best defenses I’ve been involved with have these elements. I know we’re in a much better place.”
Including Mack and Jackson, the defense will have at least six new starters. Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson man the defensive line, with Kyle Van Noy at inside linebacker and nickel cornerback Bryce Callahan.
“The types of players that exist and the types of fundamentals, most importantly, are more like what we’re used to seeing and expect to see. You guys know more than just the inside players. Everyone is getting better,” he said.
THE FAMILIARITY FACTOR
Herbert was in the same offense for the first time in his three-year NFL career, allowing him to refine his footwork and snap cadence while trying to drive defenses offside.
Teammates have also noticed that Herbert has become more comfortable as a team leader.
“He’s just a lot looser than usual. He is just much more comfortable. When you come in freshman, you’re shy, you don’t want to talk a lot,” wide receiver Mike Williams said. “But now he’s taken control and is himself.”
Williams had a breakout season last year with 76 receptions for 1,146 yards and nine touchdowns, which he used to sign a three-year, $60 million contract extension.
Keenan Allen has five straight seasons with at least 95 receptions, the second-longest streak in NFL history. Last year, Austin Ekeler had 20 touchdowns (12 rushing, eight receiving) and finished third among running backs with 1,558 rushing yards.
QUARTER AND STEEL
Last season, the Chargers became the 18th team since 1991 to drop to fourth down at least 30 times. They were 22 out of 34, and their success rate of 64.7% was the highest of the group.
Staley took a lot of flak for fourth down calls that went wrong late in the season against the Chiefs and Raiders, but he’s not going to change his mindset this year.
“All these decisions depend on feelings. There’s math that’s part of it too, but it’s more thinking than math, I can assure you, he said. “That’s how we want to play as a team.”
The Chargers begin with two major division tests. They open at home against the Raiders on Sept. 11 and travel to Kansas City four nights later to take on the Chiefs. Los Angeles’ next six games will be against teams with losing records last season before a tough stretch begins in San Francisco on Nov. 13, which includes home to Kansas City (Nov. 20) and road games in Las Vegas and Arizona. The Chargers will host the defending Super Bowl champion Rams on Jan. 1 in a battle for Los Angeles.