Justin Herbert vs. Tua Tagovailoa ends with Chargers’ third consecutive loss

Miami Dolphins defensive back Nik Needham sacks Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert.
Miami Dolphins defensive back Nik Needham sacks Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert during the first half Sunday.
(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

The forecast fireworks display fizzled Sunday, instead giving way to the unspectacular thud of one team’s season continuing to spoil.

The Justin Herbert versus Tua Tagovailoa showdown never really happened at Hard Rock Stadium as the Chargers fell to Miami 29-21 in a game that sure didn’t feel that close.

Afterward, no one was talking much about the two rookie quarterbacks, especially on the team that lost.


“I think I’m moody right now,” Chargers cornerback Michael Davis said when asked how he was feeling. “I’m just mad because we’re a much better team than 2-7. I’m just mad.”

The Chargers have dropped seven of eight games since winning their opener. They also fell to 3-16 in games decided by eight points or fewer since the start of last season.

A lot of matters have gone wrong for the Chargers in this strange year, so seems coach Anthony Lynn should get a chance to right this sinking ship.

That sour streak was extended statistically Sunday, but, practically speaking, this hardly was another late, anguishing defeat.

Miami scored barely two minutes into the game, went up 14-0 in the first quarter and led the entire way. The Chargers edged within 17-14 midway through the third quarter but never got closer.

Herbert passed 13 yards to wide receiver Keenan Allen for a touchdown with 1:57 remaining to pull within eight points. But when the Chargers failed to recover the ensuing onside kick, their latest loss was sealed.

“We didn’t execute when we needed to, and we didn’t put up enough points,” Herbert said. “Definitely underperformed on offense.”

Tagovailoa was the No. 5 pick in the 2020 NFL draft and Herbert the No. 6 selection. Their first meeting was billed as a possible shootout and certainly a must-see attraction given how well both have performed early in their careers.

But Tagovailoa was more efficient than electric, completing 15 of 25 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Known for his elusiveness, he finished with minus-one yard rushing. The Dolphins (6-3) won their fifth game in a row and are 3-0 in games in which Tagovailoa starts.

Herbert was 20 for 32 for a season-low 187 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. He also scored on a one-yard sneak.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa runs with the ball against the Chargers.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

The Chargers entered Sunday averaging 420 total yards — second best in the NFL — but produced only 273 against Miami’s pressuring defense.

Herbert repeatedly has shown an impressive deep-ball ability, his precision on long passes among the league leaders. The Dolphins limited him to one pass that gained more than 17 yards. They sacked him twice and were credited with hitting him six additional times.

“They brought a lot of stuff,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “There’s only so much you can do. They challenged our protection. At times, we did not protect very well. … They got to us before we got to our guy.”

Lynn explained that, in order to combat Miami’s blitzing, the Chargers game-planned to run the ball. The result was heavy reliance on Kalen Ballage, a third-year player who had been on the practice squad until the last two weeks.

Ballage carried 18 times for 68 yards and caught a team-high five passes for 34 yards. That was 23 touches on a day when Allen had only three receptions and Mike Williams two catches.

“You gotta slow it down,” Lynn said. “We felt like we could establish the run and set up our run-action pass, take our shots down the field like we’ve always done.”

Those shots failed to materialize as often as the Chargers would have liked, Lynn said, because the Dolphins weren’t allowing Herbert and his receivers enough time.

The Chargers’ miscues on special teams, including a punt that was blocked, did nothing to help their chances in Sunday’s 29-21 loss to the Dolphins.

“In this game, with the pressure that we were under and the disguises that they were giving us,” Lynn said, “I didn’t think it was smart to throw the ball 50 times.”

The uphill tone of the afternoon was set early, when Miami’s Andrew Van Ginkel blocked a punt by Ty Long and the Dolphins recovered at the Chargers’ one-yard line.

Running back Salvon Ahmed scored on the next play, and the Chargers trailed just 2 minutes 6 seconds into the game.

On the Dolphins’ next possession, the Chargers’ Quenton Meeks was called for offsides on a field-goal attempt, gifting Miami a first down and leading to another touchdown.

The two glaring mistakes continued a rough season for the Chargers on special teams.

“I was disappointed,” Lynn said. “You go on the road, you can’t give opponents anything.”

Defensively, the Chargers surrendered 280 total yards — a season low — and gave up only two plays that covered more than 20 yards.

But they also had their hands on multiple potential interceptions, with Davis, Denzel Perryman and Kenneth Murray Jr. each failing to secure the ball.

Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Chargers’ 29-21 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.

“That should have been three interceptions,” Lynn said. “When you don’t take advantage of those types of opportunities, you don’t win these games.”

And so the Chargers fell again, all seven of their losses coming by eight points or fewer.

The good news? The 0-9 New York Jets, the league’s only winless team, are the Chargers’ next opponent.

Not that a bunch beaten so thoroughly Sunday was eager to accept a consolation prize.

“I don’t even know if I have words at this point,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “We just beat ourselves tonight in every phase.”