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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