Column: Justin Herbert's runs give Chargers a QB dimension they've often lacked
When a Steelers pass rusher named Alex Highsmith blew past right tackle Storm Norton on Sunday night, it appeared Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert would take a sack or throw the ball away on third down.
An enduring NFL truth is that Chargers quarterbacks do not run away from edge rushers.
But that’s exactly what Herbert did to gain 13 yards on a night he set a franchise record at the position by rushing for 90 yards.
“There he goes again!” yelled NBC broadcaster Al Michaels as Herbert — untouched — stranded Highsmith. “You cannot stop him.”
When Herbert decides to run fast, he resembles Secretariat in comparison to Philip Rivers and Dan Fouts despite outweighing those former pocket-bound passers who made the majority of the franchise’s starts for a combined 25 seasons.
Herbert outsprinted not only Highsmith — who clocked at 4.70 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine — but a few other Steelers defenders in the 41-37 victory at the Kroenke Dome.
“He’s looking like Emmitt Smith,” Michaels said as Herbert ripped off a 36-yard run, in which he eluded safety Terrell Edmunds.
It wasn’t a stunning performance, in comparison to Herbert’s other recent efforts.
In his final game for Oregon , he rocketed past Wisconsin defenders and scored three touchdowns to lead the Ducks to a 28-27 victory in the Rose Bowl.
Herbert ran fast at the NFL Combine, clocking 4.69 and 4.71 while weighing 236 pounds.
He rushed for 66 yards in his sixth NFL start, at Jacksonville last year, and went for 20-plus yards in five other games.
What differed against the Steelers is he resorted to more sprints than he had in any of his other 24 starts.
He was opportunistic, exploiting pass rushers and pass defenders. He was decisive, pulling the ball down and zooming across the carpet.
“When it’s drained out and he sees daylight,” said Chargers coach Brandon Staley, “now he becomes a tailback.”
If he’s the NFL tallest tailback at 6-foot-6, Herbert showed an awareness of his limitations by sliding on the fake grass several times or running out of bounds rather than allow a defender to hit him.
For longtime Chargers observers, an explosive Bolts quarterback takes getting used to.
Some Bolts QBs could scoot. Mark Malone, Doug Flutie, Drew Brees, Ryan Leaf and backup Charlie Whitehurst, to name a handful.
John Hadl, who rushed for 13 touchdowns as a college running back and QB with the Kansas Jayhawks, brought good mobility to the AFC club in 1962.
Coach Sid Gillman decided against having Hadl carry out designed runs, said former Chargers right tackle Ron Mix. He wanted to preserve Hadl’s health. “Why have John run the ball when we have Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe?” Mix said Monday.
Herbert is faster than any of aforementioned Bolts QBs were, including the agile Brees, who clocked 4.83 in the 40 out of Purdue and rushed for 25 TDs.
He’s a faster sprinter than Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs star who also logged a 4.83. (Mahomes, agile and deft on option runs and pitches, is more varied as a rusher. The versatility played a key role in his team’s Super Bowl victory two years ago, but also dealt Mahomes a neck injury last season.)
At one specialized run — quarterback sneaks — Herbert is much better than Rivers if only because he attempts those plunges and leaps. Remember, Rivers went six-plus years without attempting a sneak for the Chargers and deferred to designated sneaker Jacoby Brissett last year with the Colts.
First in the AFC in Total Quarterback Rating (67.0), young Herbert has shown he’s an accurate, strong-armed passer both from the pocket and on the move.
The extra dimension his sprint speed creates will give defenses more problems to solve. It will clarify what Herbert and teammates see from defenses.
“What happens is, if you’re trying to play this guy a certain type of way, if you’re going to try to play this split-safety man-under (coverage), and you’re in a four-man rush, well, the one guy that they’re not accounting for is the quarterback,” said Staley, who coordinated the Rams’ defense last year.
When Herbert zapped the Jags for 31 yards last year on a sprint around end, Fouts lost bragging rights for longest run by an Oregon alum quarterbacking the Chargers.
Fouts ran for 26 yards in a 1979 contest against the Atlanta Falcons. Really, he did. More than 50,000 fans at San Diego Stadium witnessed the stiff-legged, 28-year-old QB ambling downfield, Dec. 2.
“There’s no way that sucker can run that fast,” said Chargers assistant coach Joe Gibbs, awed.
Rivers, whose 40 time at North Carolina State was about 5.2 when converted to electronic timing used by the Combine, had his best rushing day in his first season as San Diego starter when he carried six times for 24 yards. The Steelers were the opponent.
Huge chunks of vacant football field that Rivers could only dream about running across are now available to his full-time successor, whose powerful arm brings other grass into play that was off limits.
"He's really an excellent player," said Mix, a Hall of Famer and mainstay for San Diego's 1963 AFL titlist team. "I think he's going to win over those L.A. fans."
- For the Rams, the game this Sunday at Green Bay looms as a November Super Bowl. In pursuit of the NFC's only Wild Card-round bye, the Rams (7-3) are trying to finish ahead of the Packers (8-3), the NFL-leading Arizona Cardinals (9-2), the Cowboys (7-3) and the Bucs (6-3 entering Monday night). Green Bay won the Divisional Round game against L.A. last January after earning the bye. The Packers will lack their best blocker, LT Elgton Jenkins, who suffered a torn ACL in the 34-31 loss Sunday at Minnesota. The Rams, roughed up by the Titans and 49ers, respectively, in their ninth and 10th games, will be coming off a bye. The extra week should allow edge rusher Von Miller, who joined the team three weeks ago via a trade, to be up to speed against Aaron Rodgers and Co.
- "Pass the potatoes" will be heard at the Thanksgiving Day dinner of the New England Patriots coach. "Oh boy. It would be hard for me to turn down any type of potatoes," Bill Belichick told the Greg Hill Show. "I'll go with whatever — mashed potatoes, scalloped, baked ... Load 'em up. Throw some butter on there. Starch me up."
- San Diegan and 2020 All-Pro punter Jake Bailey (Santa Fe Christian) contributed to New England's 25-0 win Thursday night by pinning the Falcons at the 4, 14 and 19. The third of those punts went 60 yards. Not since the late Rams Hall of Famer Kevin Greene and Co. combined for nine sacks in a 1988 game had Atlanta been shut out at home. Back then the frustrated offensive coordinator was Rod Dowhower, who played and coached under Don Coryell at San Diego State. Bailey collects his snaps from Joe Cardona (Granite Hills).
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .