COSTA MESA, Calif. — Justin Herbert spotted a slot defender creeping up behind the five down linemen.
“Oh, oh, oh,” the Los Angeles Chargers quarterback alerted running back Austin Ekeler before the snap.
Ekeler noted the threat and confirmed to his quarterback that he’d pick up his responsibility. Then, Ekeler celebrated internally.
“Just that communication in the backfield that we used to have with Philip [Rivers] when he was like 17 years in, that I’m starting to see with Herbert right now,” Ekeler said, comparing his fourth-year quarterback to the eight-time Pro Bowler he began his career alongside. “He understands the protections now, he’s seeing it, he’s switching calls [and] calling plays from the line of scrimmage.
“I can start to see him really maturing into a veteran quarterback.”
The prospect of deeper awareness elevating Herbert’s talent is tantalizing for the Chargers.
Herbert’s success preceded his arrival at veteran status. The sixth overall selection of the 2020 NFL Draft won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors as he threw for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns to 10 interceptions while accounting for five more touchdowns rushing.
Herbert stayed relatively consistent in Years 2 and 3, his 97.7 passer rating in Year 2 just 0.6 below his initial mark. In his third year, despite fracturing rib cartilage in Week 2 and requiring surgery for a torn labrum in his left shoulder at season’s end, Herbert still played clean if less explosive football. He threw for 4,739 yards, 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while registering a 93.2 passer rating.
The Chargers awarded him a five-year, $262 million contract just before training camp in a show of faith in Herbert’s ability. But Chargers brass and teammates alike tout Herbert’s contributions beyond his size, strength and arm talent.
Even in new offense under coordinator Kellen Moore, Herbert’s command has turned heads at camp. The quarterback is shuffling teammates at the line of scrimmage and corroborating his diagnoses with defenders after plays. Awareness is climbing. Execution, the Chargers hope, will follow.
“We try to disguise and play as much stuff as anybody in the NFL, but he has a way of undressing that now,” head coach Brandon Staley said of his defense. “When you can do that, you can really control the game. Because there's not a throw or play that he can't make on that field, but it's a lot easier to make those plays when you can completely understand and know and command and control what's happening on the other side.
“He’s been able to really force our hand in a lot of ways.”
For Herbert, grasping Moore’s offense doesn’t look one way
Herbert’s real-time problem solving generates varied responses. When his pocket collapsed during one early snap of Sunday’s intrasquad scrimmage, Herbert scurried to the right and scrambled up the middle of the field for a first down.
When a later red-zone situation didn’t immediately create an open defender, Herbert stayed patient in the pocket, dropping back right, exploring his left, then returning to his right where he fit a tight-window touchdown into the hands of receiver Keenan Allen.
“You talk about getting comfortable in a new system. It’s that flow to where it comes naturally and you’re working through reads and progressions naturally and you feel the pocket collapse, and you decide to take off and go or say, ‘I can wait just that fraction second longer to get a guy into an open window,’” quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier told Yahoo Sports. “You have to allow the quarterback to have freedom in what he feels. It’s like playing point guard in basketball — you can’t put him in a box.
“You’ve got to allow the game to flow for them and I think Justin’s done a really good job throughout camp of working in the flow of the offense.”
That flow, the Chargers hope, will generate more explosive plays than in recent years.
Coaches and players alike are considering the “why” behind plays, be that Moore determining the reason for a play’s success and failure
Stretching the field vertically and capitalizing on Herbert’s powerful arm to increase explosive plays are focuses for the Chargers this camp. The Chargers ranked ninth in offense, 13th in scoring offense last year, scoring top-5 in each the prior season. But diversifying how they move the chains and on which downs they generate significant yardage are emphases.
Los Angeles valued how Moore spaced the field horizontally in four years coordinating the Dallas Cowboys, Moore not only setting up the pass with the run but also pressuring the defense to lighten the box due to the downfield passing threat. In his first year with the Chargers, Moore is eager to use Herbert’s arm to take full advantage of a receiving corps featuring Allen, Mike Williams, Josh Palmer and first-round rookie Quentin Johnston.
“His ability to just stretch the field, how easy it is to throw across the field, it's different,” Moore told Yahoo Sports. “His ability to make throws from the far hash and get it across the field in a very casual manner? You never get used to it.
“I mean — it's pretty when he throws it.”
And the more Herbert masters the offense mentally, the prettier the Chargers expect those throws to be.
“The biggest thing for Justin is giving him the opportunities to go downfield while still making good decisions,” Moore said. “If they're there, take them. If they’re not, they’re not, and we’ll move on and we’ll call another one.
“I think he's just taking this thing over. It’s really, really exciting.”