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Justin Herbert has a believer in Chargers great Dan Fouts: QB is ‘the whole package’

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is sacked by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is sacked by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith during the second half of the Chargers’ 41-37 win Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Josh Allen has a rocket launcher for a right arm. Patrick Mahomes is his generation’s John Elway. Tom Brady has seven Super Bowl rings.

And the Chargers’ Justin Herbert?

“I wouldn’t trade Justin Herbert to any team in the league right now for any other quarterback,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, reached at home during halftime of the “Sunday Night Football” game between the Chargers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I’m talking about the whole package.”

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Even Fouts couldn’t have imagined the second-half drama to come, with the Steelers erasing a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to take a lead, and the Chargers roaring back with a 53-yard touchdown pass from Herbert to a high-stepping Mike Williams for a 41-37 victory.

The Chargers allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to rally from a 17-point deficit before pulling off a 41-37 victory on a Mike Williams touchdown catch.

Thanks to the brilliant play of their second-year quarterback and some door-slamming defense, the Chargers silenced a cyclone of Terrible Towels that practically lifted the roof off SoFi Stadium.

“To be able to bounce back after a couple of close losses, I think it’s huge for us,” Herbert said.

Suddenly, the AFC West is as tight as a Herbert spiral, and the Chargers quarterback has resumed his stratospheric rise. He threw for 382 yards and ran for 90 — with three yards rushing shaved off when he ended the game by taking a knee on the last three snaps.

“We finished the game on our terms,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “That’s as good of a win as we’ve had.”

For the Chargers, the game started as beautifully as it ended. Herbert completed 15 of his first 16 passes, with the only incompletion being a “butt-ugly” drop — in the words of NBC’s Al Michaels — by tight end Donald Parham of an on-the-money pass over the middle.

Mistakes would come. Late in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh’s Cam Heyward batted a Herbert pass at the line of scrimmage, sending the ball high in the air. Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton made a diving interception at the Chargers’ 15 with 4 minutes, 36 seconds left. That set up a pivotal touchdown, with Ben Roethlisberger threading a five-yard pass to rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth for a 34-34 tie.

Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts is pictured in San Diego  in 1979.
Former Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, say she would not trade Justin Herbert for any quarterback in the NFL.
(Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)

Things looked grim for the Chargers when they were stuffed on fourth down on the ensuing drive, and Pittsburgh edged ahead by three with a 45-yard field goal with 3:29 to play.

The stage was set for Herbert, who calmly connected on short passes to Parham and Austin Ekeler, then sizzled a spiral to Williams for a dash down the sideline, punctuated with a tackle-evading high step.

“He was fantastic in the game today,” Staley said of Herbert. “He was the best player on the field. He’s got real instincts, and his legs helped us with the game.”

The final touchdown was a signature moment for the young Chargers quarterback. Now, Fouts freely admits Herbert is his favorite player and acknowledges the ties they share, both were University of Oregon stars who became centerpieces for the Chargers, so his opinions have a powder-blue hue. But he’s also enshrined in Canton and threw for nearly 25 miles in his career, so he knows something about the position.

Breaking down the notable numbers behind the Chargers’ 41-37 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at SoFi Stadium on Sunday — scoring and statistics.

He also knows the broken-down Steelers arrived at the right time for the Chargers, who had lost three of their past four games, with Herbert playing like, well, the second-year quarterback that he is. The Pittsburgh defense was missing star players at every level: defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, linebacker T.J. Watt, cornerback Joe Haden and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

“With the situation in Pittsburgh, it seems like the perfect opponent at this point for Justin and the Chargers,” Fouts said, not knowing after the first half how spectacular.

Herbert needed the breather. He looked positively mortal in humbling losses to Baltimore, New England and Minnesota against some of the top defensive minds in the game. Then again, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale (Ravens), and head coaches Bill Belichick (Patriots) and Mike Zimmer (Vikings) have taken good quarterbacks down a few pegs before, and not just guys as green as Herbert, who was making his 25th career start Sunday.

The Chargers held on to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 41-37 at SoFi Stadium on Sunday. Here are 13 photos that capture the game’s biggest moments.

In some ways, Herbert is a victim of his own success. He was so surprisingly fluid and poised as a rookie, it made for unrealistic expectations for what he’d do in Year 2. He hasn’t been as stellar under pressure, forcing some throws against the aforementioned opponents. And heading into this week, Keenan Allen and Williams accounted for more drops (13) than any other receiving duo in the league.

“I don’t really go for the sophomore slump in this case,” Fouts said. “The season is just half over.”

And no division is tighter than the AFC West, in which every team has at least five wins. The Chargers are heading into the thick of their division games, with two against Denver, at home against Kansas City, and a Jan. 9 finale in Las Vegas.

The Chargers know they can finish, and they know they have the right person at the most important position.

“Part of the job as a quarterback is being able to move the chains by any means necessary,” Staley said. “And that’s what he did tonight.”


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