NFL

Los Angeles Chargers: How Herbert and Co. can ascend in 2021

By Sports Desk April 16, 2021

Despite playing in a disappointingly empty new SoFi Stadium, few teams managed to electrify more than the Los Angeles Chargers last season.

Even the most ardent Chargers fan would admit that, prior to 2020, there hadn't been much appetite for the franchise in Los Angeles.

It will be interesting to see to what extent that has changed if fans are allowed in stadiums in 2021, following a record-setting rookie season from Justin Herbert.

Herbert silenced all the doubters who questioned the Chargers for taking him with the sixth overall pick, delivering a remarkable campaign that earned him the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

It still was not enough to stop the Chargers from enduring a season defined by gaffes and late-game heartbreak, head coach Anthony Lynn paying with his job despite a four-game winning streak to end the year 7-9.

Fuelling further optimism is the appointment of Brandon Staley as Lynn's replacement.

Staley earned widespread plaudits for what he did as the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams in 2020, building a reputation as one of the most innovative defensive minds in the game.

He will hope to get the most of a defense stacked with blue-chip talent while offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is tasked with helping Herbert to the next step in his development.

What can that duo learn from the Chargers' performances of last season? Using Stats Perform data we look back on a 2020 campaign that left Chargers fans excited about what this team could become.

Offense

Herbert went into his rookie season being seen as an inferior quarterback to Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. As a rookie, he outperformed both, becoming the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season having not played the opener.

He came in for Tyrod Taylor after the Week 1 starter had his lung punctured by a team doctor who was administering a painkilling injection.

That error proved serendipitous for everyone but Taylor, who had to play the role of the onlooker as Herbert racked up the second-most passing yards by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. Herbert's 4,336 trailed only Andrew Luck, who racked up 4,374 with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012.

Herbert was also second all-time among rookies with his completion percentage of 66.6, falling shy of Dak Prescott who connected on 67.8 in 2016. Where Herbert did set rookie records was in completions (396), passing yards per game (289.1), passing touchdowns (31) and 300-yard games, of which he recorded eight.

Yet for all the remarkable exploits of the sixth overall pick, finishing drives and scoring points remained an issue for the Chargers.

They ranked 21st in red zone touchdown efficiency and in average red zone points, putting up 4.79 per trip inside the 20-yard line of their opponents.

Many will see the departure of Lynn, heavily criticised for his play-calling and game management in key situations, as a significant step towards the Chargers improving in that regard.

But Los Angeles will also look for more from the running game. An injury-affected season for Austin Ekeler hindered the ground attack, which was 30th in yards per rush (3.83) and tied 27th in touchdowns (12).

Too often Herbert led the Chargers into the red zone only to see the drive end in a field goal or a stop for the defense. While Ekeler being at full health would help, the onus will be on Lombardi to ensure their issues inside the 20 are less frequent in 2021.

Defense

As is so often the case with the Chargers, misfortune was a critical factor in their defense not realising its potential.

They lost Derwin James for the season before a ball had even been snapped, the All-Pro safety sidelined following torn meniscus surgery.

It was also another year in which edge rusher Joey Bosa did not play a full season. Had both of those stars been available for the entire year, the Chargers might not have ranked so poorly in opponent scoring efficiency.

The Chargers ranked 23rd in that respect and 21st in opponent touchdown efficiency, with an inability to create turnovers playing a role in their issues.

They generated 19 takeaways in 2020, putting the Chargers tied for 22nd in the NFL, though that number was only three fewer than Staley's Rams defense registered last season.

However, the Rams scored 15 more points off takeaways than the Chargers and were significantly better at creating negative plays for opposing offenses overall.

The Rams forced 88 negative plays for minus 441 yards, ranking seventh in the league, while the Chargers were 30th with 72 negative plays for minus 222 yards.

Yet Staley should be confident he can create a similar formula to what he had with the Rams, with Aaron Donald wreaking havoc up front and Jalen Ramsey an eraser in the secondary. Bosa and James are excellent candidates to fill those roles for the Chargers.

Los Angeles will need to add talent around that duo for this defense to realise its potential, but the Chargers do possess the resources with which to do that.

Offseason

The Chargers used what financial resources they had, in a year where the salary cap was reduced, to beef up the offensive line and ensure Herbert will have the benefit of better protection.

Corey Linsley was signed to a five-year, $62million deal that was more than justified after a 2020 season in which he was named first-team All-Pro, having allowed a pressure rate of 2.8 per cent last season (NFL average: 4.9).

The versatile and underrated right tackle Matt Feiler arrived on a three-year deal from the Pittsburgh Steelers while another tackle, Oday Aboushi, was brought in on a one-year contract.

Los Angeles will hope Jared Cook can help fill the void left by tight end Hunter Henry’s departure to New England. Cook produced a big play on 31.6 per cent of his targets in 2020. The league average for tight ends is 26.1 per cent.

Further help for Herbert, who suffered the ninth-most sacks in the NFL (32) last season, may come with pick 13 in the draft if the Chargers choose to spend it on a long-term solution at left tackle.

However, with Casey Hayward and Melvin Ingram still on the open market and Rayshawn Jenkins having left for Jacksonville, cornerback, edge rusher and safety are all areas Los Angeles could target.

After hiring a defensive mastermind at head coach, better support from that unit and cleaner pockets for their franchise quarterback will be the keys to the Chargers going from upstart to playoff team in Staley's first season.

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