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Chargers eye more from Justin Herbert in second start, namely a win over Panthers

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws despite pressure from the Chiefs' defense.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert kept his poise during his NFL debut, a 23-20 overtime loss to the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The circumstances made for what almost has to be the most bizarre NFL debut for a top-prospect quarterback.

Justin Herbert was thrust into his maiden game mere moments before kickoff because a member of his team’s medical staff inadvertently punctured the lung of the scheduled starter.

So Herbert suddenly trotted onto the field in a freshly christened stadium that cost some $5 billion to construct but was empty because of a pandemic.

The opponent: the defending Super Bowl champions.

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Yet, to understand how completely prepared and thoroughly unfazed Herbert was despite the tornadic conditions whirling about him, listen to the words running back Austin Ekeler used to describe the Chargers’ opening drive:

“It felt like a natural game. ‘Hey, we’re just in the huddle, running plays, getting yardage, getting in a rhythm. Let’s continue to do it.’ It didn’t feel any different.”

Chargers QB Tyrod Taylor was unable to play Sunday after a team medical staffer punctured his lung while giving an injection. Rookie Justin Herbert will start again in Week 3 against Carolina.

A natural game. Herbert led the Chargers to a touchdown on that drive — going 79 yards in eight plays — and scored from four yards out on a dash into the right-front corner of the end zone.

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With Tyrod Taylor still sidelined, Herbert will make his second NFL start Sunday against Carolina, again at SoFi Stadium.

Chargers offensive coordinator Shane Steichen praised most of what Herbert did against Kansas City last weekend, the rookie completing 22 of 33 passes for 311 yards and a touchdown.

“Obviously, we’ve got to keep that rolling,” Steichen said. “And we’ve got to win. We’ve got to win this week.”

Oh, yeah. There’s that. Winning is about the only thing Herbert didn’t accomplish in his first start. The Chargers, after leading by as many as 11 points as late as the final four minutes of the third quarter, fell 23-20 in overtime.

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But Herbert did show why he was the sixth overall pick in the 2020 draft and why the Chargers felt comfortable enough to make him their backup despite a limited offseason program and no preseason games.

“He earned my respect,” veteran defensive tackle Linval Joseph said. “He’s going to be a very good player. As long as he gets better each and every day, don’t sleep on us. We’re going to surprise a lot of people this year.”

With Taylor unable to start, coach Anthony Lynn said the offense was compromised somewhat because Herbert had rarely, if ever, run certain plays in practice, particularly those in short-yardage situations and the red zone.

Remember Lynn’s overtime decision to punt to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ high-flying offense instead of attempting to convert a fourth and one at the Chargers’ 34-yard line?

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The coach explained this week that Herbert hadn’t been put in those situations enough to justify going for it.

“We work on those gotta-have-it situations for those moments,” Lynn said. “But it wasn’t fair to put it on him to run plays that he hasn’t run in practice. I put it on my defense.”

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Six minutes and 13 plays later, Kansas City’s Harrison Butker kicked a game-ending 58-yard field goal.

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With a full week to prepare for the Panthers, the notion is Herbert and the Chargers will have more offensive options to pick from Sunday.

“Justin’s very bright,” Lynn said. “He knows this offense. But there’s a difference in knowing it and going out and doing it and repping it [in practice].”

Asked specifically what he expected now from Herbert, Lynn said: “Expect to win, is what we expect. Expect him to play well enough to win. And I believe he will.”

Herbert’s touchdown pass came on a 14-yard dart to Jalen Guyton. After the snap, the rookie was looking to throw to Keenan Allen but switched based on the defense, Steichen calling it “a big-time play.”

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Chargers vs. Carolina Panthers.
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

Defensive end Joey Bosa joked after the game about Herbert having too much arm on a few of his attempts, his fastballs ripping through the receivers’ hands.

Ekeler mentioned Herbert’s leadership in the huddle and said there were moments reminiscent of Philip Rivers, a quarterback in his 17th NFL season. Until Sunday, most of the NFL Herbert had seen had been on television.

“I was pretty proud of him,” Ekeler said, “checking out of plays and recognizing the defense.”

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Having passed a crazy and chaotic debut, Herbert will arrive back at SoFi Stadium a week older and, presumably, at least that much wiser.

“You can only get better from that,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “He’s going to learn a lot…He was prepared and he was ready to go and that showed.”

Etc.

Starting defensive tackle Justin Jones (shoulder) again did not practice Thursday and likely won’t play against the Panthers. That should increase Jerry Tillery’s role. Running back Justin Jackson (quadriceps) and linebacker Nick Vigil (groin) also have missed consecutive days of practice.


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