Emerging Justin Herbert-Keenan Allen Duo Deserves More Attention

Photo: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

If you polled draft analysts in April and asked who the most impactful Year 1 rookie quarterback was going to be, you would have gotten a chorus of Joe Burrows—and rightfully so. An older prospect with a great script against pressure, Burrow projected as an immediate starter who would largely be in Year 1 that which he would be long-term. And if that’s the case, Bengals fans should be happy with the pick, and hope that Burrow has a speedy recovery.

But between Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, you would have seen a lot more debate. Tagovailoa was widely the preferred prospect between the two, with his final games at Alabama pushing Crimson Tide passing records, and his legacy cemented by his stunning national championship win as a freshman. Herbert, oozing with natural talent, did not have the same success at the college level—he was considered more so the project, and Tagovailoa more so the finished product. But with Tagovailoa’s injury considered—there was no guarantee he would be ready to play in Week 1—the matter was up for debate.

Now in November, there is little doubt who the most impactful rookie quarterback has been: Justin Herbert. In a stunning display of the ability that Oregon could never fully unlock, Herbert has been one of the most productive downfield passers, passers against pressure, and passers outside of the pocket in all of football. Even with Burrow and Tagovailoa’s successes, Herbert has leaped not only to the top of this rookie quarterback class, but to the forefront of the young quarterback conversation that includes other stars in the league like Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen. He’s been that good.

He’s been that good, and head coach Anthony Lynn has kept the kid gloves on him anyway.

Through the young season, the ex-RB coach has stuck to his guns and insisted that his team operate on a run-first approach. This after injuries to both Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, which has seen journeyman Kalen Ballage forced into a primary role in the Chargers backfield. Behind one of the worst interior offensive lines in football, which limits the Chargers to designed runs outside of the tackle box that aren’t even maximized by their thin running back room.

Lynn has always been run first, and he has come under fire for that approach even before he and the Chargers uncovered gold with Herbert. But against the New York Jets in Week 11, we saw a flash of what could be if Herbert were given the reins on early downs.

Against a New York Jets team with a staunch run defending interior and a rookie-studded, porous secondary, the Chargers were willing to attack the gaps on the defense—and they did it with Keenan Allen, the other star on this offense often misused and underappreciated. After seeing only seven targets and three catches in a loss to the Dolphins last week, Allen turned around with 16 catches on 19 targets—career-high numbers—along with 145 yards and a score. 

It was a classically dominant Allen performance: he was literally always open, even when he wasn’t. The Jets were pleased to sit in zone coverage to protect their poor secondary players and discourage Herbert’s typically aggressive vertical approach, but that often left Allen as an easy first-read throw sitting in the soft spaces between linebackers and safeties incapable of matching Allen athletically. What’s important to see here is not only Allen and Herbert’s quick work on the same page, but that Allen was also the beneficiary of targets on early-down RPOs—plays that could have contributed to the run-pass balance on the other side of the aisle, if not for the look that the Chargers got on defense.

It wasn’t just a pass-skew on RPOs that gave Allen his bump in targets—in fact, it was a replacement of the running game with the screen game that turned Allen into a high-volume underneath player. The Chargers elected to replace the traditional running game with the modern spread running game—wide receiver bubble and tunnel screens. Much like a handoff, a wide receiver screen ensures you get the ball into the hands of your playmakers, and even if they are behind the line of scrimmage, they have the blockers and space necessary to pick up some yardage and keep you ahead of the sticks.

This is how Lynn and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen replaced their anemic running game, limited by injury and facing a staunch defensive front: they ran the ball by getting it outside of the numbers to Allen, letting him chug ahead for modest gains to lace drives together. The question now is: will this approach stay?

Probably not. Austin Ekeler is on his way back from injury, and the Chargers are going to turn to him against run defenses more lenient than the Jets’. The screen game also wasn’t very effective—the Chargers’ wide receivers aren’t a good blocking bunch—and Allen’s best trait isn’t his YAC ability. What remains exciting about Allen and Herbert as a duo isn’t their ability to read pre-snap leverage and come to the same understanding for a quick gain. No, it’s their chemistry down the field, in contested situations, that’s enticing to see.

The Chargers will probably keep the kid gloves on Herbert the rest of the way, and even next season when they know what they have and can build an offense around it. It’s clear that Lynn wants to run the football. And they can get better at that, get better at play-action, and really build a good offense with that philosophy. But the core of this team’s point-scoring will remain the emergence of Herbert and his relationship with Allen, the star wide receiver easily forgotten in the long-suffering offenses in San Diego and Los Angeles.