Healthy dose of Justin Herbert’s legs now a must for injury-riddled Chargers

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a pass over Atlanta Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a pass over Atlanta Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins. Herbert ability to scramble and make plays outside the pocket aided in the Chargers’ comeback.
(Butch Dill / Associated Press)

Officially, he rushed only one time for three yards Sunday.

Those numbers fail miserably in expressing the value of Justin Herbert’s feet in the Chargers’ 20-17 victory in Atlanta.

For the first time since he suffered fractured rib cartilage. in Week 2, Herbert looked genuinely nimble as he navigated his way in and around various angry Falcons while leading his team to a last-play, comeback win.

“We felt like he was at a good enough point to start activating a little bit more of that,” coach Brandon Staley said afterward. “I thought that was an advantage for us, trying to create more plays outside the pocket. We needed that.”


Herbert’s ribs appear to have improved gradually over the last seven weeks. He had an extended period to heal before facing Atlanta since the Chargers didn’t play in Week 8.

The Chargers fell behind by double digits for the fourth game in a row, but they came back to beat Atlanta and won three of those four games, this one behind Joshua Palmer’s big day.

Nov. 7, 2022

Then, against the Falcons, he displayed his rediscovered mobility at a time when the offense desperately needed something.

The Chargers had gone three and out on their first two series before staring at third-and-15 on their third possession nearly three minutes into the second quarter. They already trailed 10-0.

Standing in the pocket with defenders encircling him, Herbert stepped forward, moved to his right and fired to Joshua Palmer over the middle for a 25-yard gain. Twelve plays later, the Chargers were in the end zone.

The completion was the offense’s most explosive play of the afternoon and Herbert’s longest connection in terms of air yards over the last three games.

With Mike Williams (ankle) and Keenan Allen (hamstring) mending and unavailable and Jalen Guyton (knee) gone for the season, Herbert and the Chargers have had to adjust to a quicker, shorter passing approach.

Chargers receiver Joshua Palmer (5) runs the ball past  Falcons cornerback Cornell Armstrong.
Chargers receiver Joshua Palmer (5) runs the ball past Falcons cornerback Cornell Armstrong. Palmer finished the game with a career-high 106 yards receiving
(Danny Karnik / Associated Press)

By being able to move with more confidence Sunday, Herbert forced Atlanta to honor his legs while also giving his teammates greater opportunities down the field.

“You’re going to have to do that when your premium guys aren’t out there all the time,” Staley said. “You’re going to have to use your legs to create some space and create some time for your guys.”

The quarterback’s sore ribs also played a part in the toned-down offensive scheme as the coaching staff tried to protect Herbert from further injury. Losing Herbert in all probability would torpedo the Chargers’ season.

Through the first eight games of his rookie year, Herbert carried 37 times for 176 yards and three touchdowns. He had 28 rushes for 95 yards and two scores through eight games in 2021.

So far this season, Herbert has 22 carries for 51 yards and no touchdowns.

Cameron Dicker had been a member of the Chargers for about 96 hours before he kicked the deciding field goal in a 20-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

Nov. 7, 2022

“You’re just trying to be smart …” Staley said. “When you feel like he’s good [physically], now it opens up more options for you.”


Herbert’s lone run against the Falcons came late in the fourth quarter, on the play immediately before Austin Ekeler fumbled. Herbert rolled right and gained three yards before being twisted to the ground by linebacker Mykal Walker.

The tackle was awkward — particularly given Herbert’s ribs — as he looked to be stuck somewhere between sliding and lunging as Walker closed.

“I don’t worry about Justin like that,” Staley said Monday. “He does a very good job protecting himself. … He’s not one of these guys that puts himself in harm’s way very often because he’s a very smart player, very calculated. … He’s a strong guy. That’s why he works out like he does. I know that he can take it.”

Herbert’s legs could prove vital as the Chargers now face back-to-back daunting challenges in surging San Francisco and Kansas City, which again sits atop the AFC West.

Tom Brady and the Buccaneers offense struggled all game against the Rams, but when the outcome came down to the final drive, the quarterback came through as usual.

Nov. 6, 2022

Williams likely will miss both games and Allen would have to improve quickly to be available against the 49ers. He was unable to practice last week. Herbert’s legs might be nearly as important as his right arm as the Chargers try to remain on track for a postseason berth.

In his first two seasons, a healthier Herbert was able to extend possessions by scrambling for first downs. He did so 48 times in his first 32 career starts. This season, Herbert has rushed for only four first downs. So far, at least.


“You change the math when you can move your legs,” Staley said. “Now, it’s 11-on-11. The way the game has changed, back 10, 15 years ago, it’s 10-on-11 the whole game. Now, with the mobility of all of these elite players, you truly can even out the game.”


The Chargers lost another key contributor Sunday when defense lineman Austin Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury. Staley said Johnson has a fracture and an MCL sprain. He joins Guyton, cornerback J.C. Jackson and left tackle Rashawn Slater as players gone for the season, although there’s a chance Slater could return for the playoffs if the Chargers get there. ... Right tackle Trey Pipkins III aggravated his left knee sprain against the Falcons and couldn’t finish the game. Staley said it was too early to know if Pipkins will be available to face San Francisco on Sunday.