Justin Herbert has set the NFL ablaze this season. But against the New England Patriots, he looked very much like the rookie quarterback he is.
The Los Angeles Chargers phenom struggled through his worst game as a pro Sunday, looking overwhelmed and overmatched in a 45-0 butt-whooping at SoFi Stadium.
Herbert completed 26 of 53 passes for 209 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in the loss. His 43.7 passer rating was by far the worst of his young career, as were his completion percentage (49.1) and yards-per-attempt average (3.9).
For the Patriots, who’d stymied second-year Arizona Cardinals standout Kyler Murray one week earlier and traditionally have excelled against inexperienced quarterbacks, the game plan against Herbert was simple.
“No big plays and get after the quarterback,” safety/linebacker Adrian Phillips said in a postgame video conference.
They succeeded on both fronts.
The Chargers didn’t have a play longer than 25 yards (and had just three longer than 20) and their top weapons largely were silent. NFL receptions leader Keenan Allen finished with five catches on 11 targets for 48 yards. Mike Williams had four for 43 on nine targets. Austin Ekeler, one of the league’s elite pass-catching backs, was held to four catches on nine targets for 32 yards. Tight end Hunter Henry managed just one catch for 5 yards. Patriots defenders broke up seven Herbert passes, not counting the two picks.
As for getting after the quarterback, the Patriots delivered their most dominant pass-rushing performance of the season, sacking Herbert three times and hitting him 11 times. Defensive linemen Deatrich Wise, Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy all bagged sacks. Former Michigan teammates Chase Winovich and Josh Uche combined for five QB hits, with Winovich also registering the first interception of his NFL career.
The Patriots now are 26-5 against first-year quarterbacks during the Bill Belichick era, including playoffs. They have not lost to a rookie signal-caller since 2013.
?I think when we?ve been able to (disguise), we play really good defense,” safety and co-captain Devin McCourty said. “(Like) last week against Kyler Murray, trying to make it tough, giving different looks and then doing that same thing today — just not making it easy. (Herbert) is a good quarterback, and he?s going to be really good. He figured some things out, but the other times, we had to make him think. We just kept trying to switch it up, and I think that?ll be the key for us.”
Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick mixed in occasional blitzes, but all three Patriots sacks and many of their pressures came on three- or four-man rushes filled with stunts and twists.
“It was basically just disrupting them with the pass rush and just making sure that we stay on top in the secondary,” said Phillips, a former Charger. “And if we did that, we knew that we were going to come out with a win. And that?s what we did.
“When we go out there and execute the game plan, nobody can stop us. If we go out there and hit our musts every week, then it?s going to be tough to beat us.”
If Phillips sounds confident, that’s because he is. The Patriots’ defenders believe their unit, ravaged last offseason by free agent departures and COVID-19 opt-outs, finally is rounding into form.
“I think we?ve grown as a defense,” McCourty said. “We?ve been able to do more things now than we were able to do earlier in the season. Guys have gotten better. Guys are studying their butts off to get out here and execute our game plan, and we?ve just got to keep that mentality going forward.?
Added Phillips: “Earlier in the season, it was frustrating, because we knew what we had and we knew if we just eliminated a few mistakes that we were going to start rolling. We?re starting to do that now, and you can see it. … There?s still things we can do better to be a more dominant defense, but we?re clicking at the right time.”
In the last four weeks, the Patriots have held offenses led by Lamar Jackson, Murray and Herbert to 17, 17 and zero points. They also were shredded by Houston’s Deshaun Watson during that span, which Phillips said was an example of them not playing to their potential.
That Texans game — a 27-20 Patriots loss — also illustrated the slim margin for error New England’s defense is working with. The Patriots’ Cam Newton-led offense relies heavily on a bruising run game and isn’t built to consistently stage long scoring drives.
Against the Chargers, the Patriots got 14 points on special teams touchdowns (a Gunner Olszewski punt return and a Devin McCourty blocked field goal return) and another 10 on possessions that began inside L.A. territory. The same was true last week, as both of New England’s touchdown drives in that game started on Arizona’s side of midfield.
?The game rides on us,” Phillips said. “If we go out there and play bad and play timid and play not to mess up, then we won?t get the results that we want. If we go out there like, ?We?re about to dominate these guys. We?re going to come after them. It doesn?t matter what they do, they have to stop us,? then we?re going to dominate.
“We?ve just been putting that together the past few weeks and putting together a great game plan and guys going out there and executing. And that?s the main thing — we?ve just been executing, and it?s been showing week in and week out. We dropped the ball a little bit against Houston, and we came back out and said, you know what, we?re going to go back to our bread and butter. We?re going to dominate, we?re going to come after you and we?re going to get on these receivers, and that?s what we?ve been doing.”
The Patriots have won four of their last five games after losing four in a row. At 6-6, they remain in playoff contention in the competitive AFC, though they’ll likely need to win out and receive some help in order to earn a wild-card spot.
New England closes with matchups against the Los Angeles Rams (road), Miami Dolphins (road), Buffalo Bills (home) and New York Jets (home).
?We?ve got to keep this going,” Phillips said, “because we can?t lose again.?