NFL

Chargers must free Herbert from their own shackles in battle with Burrow & Bengals

By Sports Desk December 04, 2021

The Los Angeles Chargers approached the 2021 season viewed by most as much more likely to make the leap and become contenders in the AFC than the Cincinnati Bengals.

But as the Chargers and the Bengals prepare to do battle in a matchup that will be critical to deciding the final AFC playoff picture, Cincinnati are the team in a better position to mount a deep postseason run.

The Bengals sent a message in Week 12 with a 41-10 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers that moved Cincinnati to 7-4, giving them their first sweep of that AFC North rival since 2009 and ensuring they ended the weekend only a game behind the AFC's current number one seed the Baltimore Ravens.

Los Angeles go into Week 13 only a game out of their division lead, but with a 6-5 record and coming off a disheartening road loss to the Denver Broncos.

Last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert threw the ball 44 times against Denver, his second-highest mark of the season having attempted 47 passes versus the Washington Football Team in Week 1.

Yet the depth of those passes should encourage a Bengals defense that has greatly improved in 2021.

Herbert averaged only 7.11 air yards per attempt last week, per Stats Perform data, below the league average for Week 12 of 7.93.

External frustration is mounting at the apparent shackling of Herbert by his own offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, the explosive plays that defined his superb rookie season significantly reduced this term.

Herbert was tied seventh in the NFL last season with 32 pass plays or 25 yards or more in 15 games. Through 11 games this season, he has just 16.

While the Bengals are in the top half in the NFL by yards per game allowed, ranking 13th with 348.2, they have proven susceptible to the big play.

The Bengals have given up 47 passing plays of 20 yards or more, the seventh-most in the league, and it would surely be a great relief to their defense to see the Chargers stick with a conservative passing game and miss a chance to take advantage of a weakness for Cincinnati.

After Joe Mixon gashed the Steelers for a career-high 165 rushing yards and two touchdowns, the Bengals likely won't hesitate to use the ground game to capitalise on a clear defensive deficiency for the Chargers.

The Chargers have given up the most rush yards (1,598) in the NFL in 2021 while their rush average allowed of 4.69 yards per carry is the league's fourth-worst.

Should the Bengals enjoy similar success on Sunday, that will take a great amount of pressure off 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow as he bids to pick apart a defense that is not living up to Chargers head coach Brandon Staley's reputation.

Herbert looked to have surpassed Burrow as the premier quarterback from the 2020 draft class and most would argue he is still the cream of that particular crop.

Yet if the Chargers cannot minimise their struggles on run defense and find a way to open up the passing game against a Bengals defense evidently vulnerable to explosive plays, Burrow could take a significant step towards starting his playoff career before Herbert. 

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  • Rooney 'flattered' by Everton interest as Ferguson praises his work at Derby Rooney 'flattered' by Everton interest as Ferguson praises his work at Derby

    Duncan Ferguson hailed the work Wayne Rooney has done at Derby County as the former England captain acknowledged he is "flattered" by reports of Everton's interest.

    Rooney, England's record goalscorer who had two spells at boyhood club Everton either side his trophy-laden stint at Manchester United, moved into management in 2020 at Derby, where he played out his final year as a player.

    In his first half season at the club, Rooney kept Derby up on the final day. However, the Championship club's financial woes came to a head in September when they filed for administration, which was subsequently followed by a 12-point deduction and then a further nine-point penalty.

    Yet against the odds, Rooney has Derby off the foot of the table and eight points from safety. 

    Everton, meanwhile, sacked Rafael Benitez on Sunday after a defeat to lowly Norwich City capped a dismal run of just one win in 13 Premier League games. They sit 16th, six points above the relegation zone.

    Ferguson, as he did in 2019 before Carlo Ancelotti arrived, has taken interim charge and will oversee Saturday's clash with Steven Gerrard's Aston Villa, but Rooney – along with Frank Lampard and Fabio Cannavaro – is a reported candidate, with Belgium having rebuffed an approach for Roberto Martinez.

    Asked about the rumours during Friday's media conference ahead of Derby's contest with rivals Nottingham Forest, Rooney said: "I'm the same as everyone else. I see the speculation on social media and in the papers.

    "Of course, Everton is a club I grew up supporting and I'm flattered to be brought up in those conversations. But I know Everton will know for them to have any communication with me, they have to go through the administrators.

    "I think it's all hearsay as there has been no approach. My focus is on Derby."

    Rooney was brought up in Ferguson's own media conference, and the Scot said: "I'm not going to drag on too many names who would be a good fit, but certainly Wayne's done very well at Derby, he's an Evertonian.

    "He could be one candidate of many and he's proved himself as a very good manager."

    Ferguson – who revealed Real Madrid manager Ancelotti had contacted him this week to offer advice – was pressed on whether he would like the opportunity to manage Everton.

    "Maybe, down the line, one day – I always dream about becoming Everton manager – but I've not quite got that experience," he answered.

    "My job at the moment is to take the upcoming games, steady the ship and the club will go through a process of identifying the new manager. 

    "You never know in football, but my job at the moment is to focus on the next game and that's it. 

    "We need a winning manager. A manager who can come and win games of football, build something and get us back up the league."

    Everton have taken just five points in their last 12 Premier League matches (W1 D2 L9), the fewest in a 12-game span since earning four points between August and October 1994, and asked about Benitez's departure, Ferguson replied: "I think the results weren't there, we weren't too surprised, I don't think Rafa would be too surprised."

    Saturday's game with Villa has plenty of side stories. Liverpool great Gerrard was on the winning side against Everton more often than he was against any other opponent in the Premier League (16), while Lucas Digne is returning to Goodison Park just over a week after he left due to a falling out with Benitez.

  • The Numbers Game: Can Moyes pull off a Man Utd double for first time since Mourinho's Chelsea? The Numbers Game: Can Moyes pull off a Man Utd double for first time since Mourinho's Chelsea?

    Not many would have predicted before the season that Manchester United versus West Ham represented a key game in the battle for the top four, but that's where we are.

    The Red Devils' win over Brentford moved them to within two points of the Hammers in fourth, with a game in hand, meaning Saturday's clash at Old Trafford offers a good chance to make some headway in the race to finish behind Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.

    It also gives David Moyes the chance to end a pretty rotten record at the home of his old club – and that's not including the nine months he was in charge there – as well as the chance for West Ham to avenge their defeat in the reverse fixture.

    Let's not forget they have already won away against United in 2021-22 – and not many teams manage to do that twice in a season. The last one, in fact, was managed by Jose Mourinho.


    BEDEVILLED

    United have won 20 of their 25 home games against West Ham in the Premier League, their last defeat coming in May 2007, when soon-to-be Red Devil Carlos Tevez secured a 1-0 win for the visitors.

    Yet their record when London clubs come calling hasn't been so strong of late: they have lost three of the previous eight home games against teams from the capital, as many such defeats as they suffered in 38 matches at Old Trafford between 2013-14 and 2019-20.

    West Ham, of course, boast the rare feat of being above United in the table: while they sit fourth, United are seventh. Only four times previously in the Premier League era have the Hammers faced them while being placed higher in the standings; interestingly, they failed to win any of them, losing 2-1 in August 1995 and September 2014, drawing 0-0 in August 1998 and losing 3-1 in December 2020.

    'PLAY LIKE FERGIE'S BOYS...'

    Moyes has done a quite brilliant job at West Ham since being parachuted in to rescue them in December 2019. Since the start of 2020-21, he has managed 30 wins from 60 league matches, accruing 102 points in that time. The only sides with more victories and more points are United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.

    Old Trafford, though, is not a happy hunting ground for the former United boss. He has drawn four and lost 10 of his away games at the stadium as a Premier League manager; only Harry Redknapp (15 games) has visited more often in the competition without a single win.

    That being said, Moyes did lead West Ham to victory on this ground in the EFL Cup back in September, and they could become just the fourth team to beat United away twice in the same season after Aston Villa (1919-20), Tottenham (1989-90) and Chelsea (2004-05).

    BOWEN'S ROAD RAGE, HAMMER TIME FOR RONALDO

    Cristiano Ronaldo scored in United's dramatic 2-1 win in the reverse fixture in September, in which he was also denied a couple of pretty strong penalty shouts before Mark Noble's injury-time spot-kick was saved by David de Gea.

    The Portugal great has always quite enjoyed facing the Hammers, with six goals and one assist in his five league appearances against them. He was directly involved in seven of the 10 United goals in those matches, in fact, so you wouldn't bet against him keeping up that record – assuming, of course, he isn't having a strop on the bench instead.

    Jarrod Bowen, arguably West Ham's most in-form player, is another who will be hoping to make an impact.

    He has scored six and assisted seven goals in his past 18 league appearances, including goals in his most recent two, but the former Hull City man has only scored three times in 43 top-flight matches on the road, converting a meagre four per cent of his shots (3/69).

    Bowen has played seven times against United from the start, but he's never scored, and only twice has he even lasted the whole game.

    SATURDAY SLUMP

    It's a minor novelty in itself that United are playing a match at 15:00 local time on a Saturday. Such is their global appeal that broadcasters are usually quick to shift them to a more viewer-friendly kick-off time.

    Ralf Rangnick might actually have preferred a different slot. United have lost their most recent two games to start at this time on a Saturday, both of which were this season: 4-2 at Leicester City, and 4-1 at Watford, a result that ended the reign of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Never before have they lost three in a row when playing at this time.

    United's opening league game of 2022 ended in a 1-0 loss to Wolves at Old Trafford. They have not lost their first two home league matches in a year since 1985, when Ron Atkinson's side were beaten by Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry City. They did go on to finish fourth, though...

  • 'The team is more important than whoever' – Rangnick reiterates stance after Ronaldo tantrum at Brentford 'The team is more important than whoever' – Rangnick reiterates stance after Ronaldo tantrum at Brentford

    Ralf Rangnick insisted that his priority will always be with the Manchester United team and not certain individuals amid ongoing questions over Cristiano Ronaldo's behaviour at Brentford.

    United sit seventh in the Premier League but are two points behind fourth-placed West Ham with a game in hand after defeating Brentford 3-1 on Wednesday.

    Ronaldo played a part in Mason Greenwood's goal, the second for United, at the Brentford Community Stadium but was removed nine minutes later, seemingly much to the Portugal captain's disgust.

    The 36-year-old appeared annoyed as he wandered towards the dugout, where he sat on the steps as he continued to gesture as if he was asking why he had been substituted.

    Rangnick, who could be seen having a word in Ronaldo's ear minutes later in an attempt to defuse the situation, said post-match that the commotion did not concern him, a stance he once again reiterated on Friday.

    "I think we shouldn't make too much of a fuss out of it," Rangnick responded when asked about Ronaldo at a pre-match news conference ahead of Saturday's clash with West Ham.

    "I can only speak for myself and my coaching staff. I explained that to him during the game, we had a little conversation after we scored the third goal. In fact, I told him the same as what I said in our press conference. 

    "The job of a football manager is to help the team win the game and it was clear from our experience at Villa Park that this time we have to do things better. 

    "We did it better and the only question was, who do we take off? Of course, Cristiano is a prolific goalscorer and he's a player that will always want to play and score goals. 

    "The team is more important than whoever – Cristiano, Edinson [Cavani], Bruno [Fernandes].

    "He was also asking why me 'why didn't you take off one of the younger players?'. The answer came five minutes later when one of the younger players scored the third goal. 

    "Maybe Cristiano could have also scored the third goal, but football is not about maybe, it is about taking a decision in the right moment."

    Asked for further clarification on his decision to send on centre-back Harry Maguire for Ronaldo, Rangnick added: "In a way in football it's a bit like chess, things can change so quickly during the game. 

    "If you watched last night's semi-final [between Arsenal and Liverpool] in the EFL Cup things can change from one minute to another.

    "In some parts of the game, you are dominating the game, pinning the other team back, and all of sudden it can be different. 

    "Therefore it is important to be able to react to what the game needs now, to what the team needs and we had exactly the same decision at Brentford as at Villa, 70 minutes played, 2-0 up against a team who does not give up. 

    "For me, it was logical with the negative experience we had at Villa Park to do it differently this time and it was clear we bring on Harry [Maguire] and then defend this 2-0 result and in the end we even scored a third one on the counter-attack and it was clear we were going to win the game."

    Ronaldo will likely lead the line again at home to David Moyes' Champions League-chasing Hammers, who the striker has scored seven goals in his last five top-flight appearances against.

    West Ham, however, have already won away at Old Trafford this season, winning 1-0 in the EFL Cup. Only three teams have ever won twice away against the Red Devils in the same season – Aston Villa (1919-20), Tottenham Hotspur (1989-90) and Chelsea (2004-05).

    Rangnick appreciates he has to take a game at a time at the United helm as he refused to look to far ahead in terms of rebuilding at the club.

    "My full focus as I have indicated is to win games with this team, in order to win games as a team we need to develop as a team," he continued.

    "We need to improve in some areas, we have done so in the last couple of weeks, but there is still more space for that in vast areas of our game and this is where my focus is. 

    "I'm not dealing with what might happen in four or five months, that is not on top of my list.

    "It's about how we can win the game against West Ham, then the cup against Middlesbrough and then Burnley, playing Southampton and Brighton [and Hove Albion] at home, this is where my focus is."

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