Chargers, Justin Herbert ready to reverse their fortune against Saints and Drew Brees
They might be the unluckiest team in the NFL, if they hadn’t benefited from a bolt of good fortune in winning their opener when the opposition missed a 31-yard field-goal attempt in the final 10 seconds.
Whatever else they might be considered, the Chargers definitely are 1-3 and in need of a victory to christen their new quarterback, Justin Herbert, who has played well enough to win two weekly NFL rookie awards but not well enough to win a game.
“We’re close,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “We just got to get over the edge. Why not do it on ‘Monday Night Football?’ ”
A national-television stage awaits the Chargers and Herbert in New Orleans, where the sixth overall pick in April will face a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback nearly twice his age for the second consecutive week.
Now that he’s the unquestioned starter at quarterback for the Chargers, Justin Herbert thinks he’ll play at a higher level. The Chargers play in New Orleans on Monday.
Coming off a loss to Tom Brady, Herbert now will attempt to topple Drew Brees, who is 41 and was drafted by the Chargers in 2001, six weeks after Herbert turned 3 years old.
After making his first start against Super Bowl-champion Patrick Mahomes, Herbert’s third and fourth starts feature the quarterbacks who are first and second on the NFL’s all-time list in passing yards and touchdowns.
“These are guys that I watched growing up,” Herbert said. “They’re the best of the best. Just to be on the other side of the field against them, it’s a special opportunity to play the game that I love.”
Herbert, 22, isn’t the reason the Chargers have dropped three in a row. But he has contributed by throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble. He also was part of an awkward handoff exchange that led to a turnover by running back Josh Kelley.
Since the start of last season, the Chargers are 3-0 when they have more takeaways than giveaways. When the opposite is true, they’ve lost nine times in a row.
The Chargers are minus-four in turnover margin and have seven total giveaways, six of which from come from rookies Herbert and Kelley.
With running back Austin Ekeler on the injured reserve list because of a hamstring strain, Kelley will continue to be given chances, coach Anthony Lynn said.
“It’s something he didn’t do a lot in college,” Lynn said of the former UCLA standout’s fumbling. “You can tell young running backs all day, ’In the NFL, it’s all about the ball. People are going after the ball.’
“Unfortunately, he’s had to learn the tough way, but I still have a lot of confidence in that young man. We’re still going to use him. He’s going to play a lot of football for us.”
The Chargers’ most recent loss — Oct. 4 at Tampa Bay — also was low-lighted by a second-half collapse by a defense that had started the season impressively.
Brady completed 15 of 17 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters as the Buccaneers bounced back from trailing 24-7 late in the first half.
The Chargers’ coaches cited an array of blown assignments and repeated examples of miscommunication. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley explained that the focus, especially in the secondary, slipped badly.
“When we’re not very precise, if we’re not on it, we can become very, very average,” he said. Then Bradley added this about the Saints: “They have the ability to do multiple things and play with precision. ... It’s going to force us to be even more precise.”
The Chargers and Saints conducted joint training camp practices in Costa Mesa for three consecutive seasons ending in 2019. So these teams are familiar with one another, though New Orleans will be seeing Herbert for the first time.
The rookie has opened eyes in his first three starts, completing 72% of his attempts, averaging 310 yards per game and throwing for five touchdowns.
In losing to Tampa Bay, he largely matched Brady until a fourth quarter in which the Buccaneers dominated the ball for nearly 12½ minutes. And Herbert was operating with an offense missing five starters.
The defense had been one of the high points of the Chargers’ season before Tom Brady led the Buccaneers on a scoring spree in Week 4.
“We put up 31 points with damn near all threes, as far as the depth chart,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “I feel like we’ve been doing some pretty good stuff. ... Anytime we pass the ball, I feel like we’re going to make [stuff] happen.”
Still, the Chargers are on a losing skid, coming off a year in which they finished 5-11. Since beating the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round after the 2018 season, they’re 6-15.
As Henry said, the Chargers certainly have been “close,” with each of their 2020 games decided by one score. But starting in Week 2 of last year, they’re 2-12 in such games.
“We can’t let the mood in the locker room go down,” defensive end Joey Bosa said. “All of these losses have been really close, tough losses. When you get on a roll of losing, you can kind of get negative and the mood just gets in a space you don’t want. It just becomes a long season after that.”
The Chargers are desperate to avoid another long season, barely a month into it.
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