They usually talk about the arm first.
“I think he’s one of those guys who could throw a strawberry through a battleship,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said.
Feel free to choose your own imaginative metaphor. The point is, Justin Herbert flings a football about as forcefully as any quarterback on earth. And he’ll be at the controls of a terrifying offense when the Los Angeles Chargers take the field at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
In the time Lamar Jackson has played for the Ravens, he’s gotten a live look at most of the young quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, etc. — who could vie with him for supremacy at the NFL’s glamour position over the next decade. But this will be his first dance with Herbert, who was drafted in the first round last year and is already a Most Valuable Player candidate for the 4-1 Chargers.
It starts with the howitzer hanging from Herbert’s right shoulder, which made him the sixth overall pick despite uneven production at Oregon and doubts — since dispensed — about his leadership qualities. The highlights, 40- and 50-yard strikes delivered off his back foot with a simple flick of the wrist, are captivating. Just last week, he threw a long completion across his body while moving to his right.
“Incredible,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Incredible arm strength.”
But in 20 career starts, Herbert has shown there is more to him than big heaves. He gets the ball off quickly, avoids catastrophic mistakes (just 13 career interceptions compared with 44 touchdown passes) and converts in tense situations.
“The physical tools, that’s a given,” said NFL on CBS analyst and former NFL safety Adam Archuleta, who will provide color commentary on Sunday’s game. “The No. 1 thing that jumps out is he really plays with great instincts. There’s not a lot of thinking or processing going on. He’s just reacting to what he sees, and that’s where all great performers get to. To me, he’s mature well beyond his years when it comes to that. The second thing if you want to put quarterbacks in the elite category … is what I call his ‘gotta have it’ throws. When he has to make a big throw, whether it’s a key third down in the second quarter like he did last week or a fourth-down conversion or a two-point play, he makes that throw. He doesn’t flinch.”
When he watches Herbert on tape, he zeros in on his eyes, probing for any sign that the 23-year-old is tipping his intentions. Archuleta has not found any tells, despite the fact Herbert always seems to know where he’s going with the ball.
ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky has described Herbert as “the best money down QB in football right now,” an assessment borne out by the Chargers’ 48.5% conversion rate on third down and 87.5% conversion rate on fourth down.
“I think he makes playing quarterback look effortless,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley told radio host Dan Patrick. “The way he plays, where he’s just really, really smooth, where you don’t even realize what’s unfolding before your eyes. Like, some of the throws that he’s able to make, some of the plays he’s able to make, he really makes it look easy.”
The Chargers offense almost seems designed in a lab to prey on the Ravens’ defensive weaknesses.
The Ravens rank 29th in DVOA against running backs catching the ball out of the backfield, according to Football Outsiders. Herbert has targeted Austin Ekeler 25 times in five games, completing 23 for 194 yards and three touchdowns.
The Ravens allowed Carson Wentz to complete 15 of 18 play-action attempts for 223 yards in Monday night’s win over the Indianapolis Colts, the worst defensive performance against play-action in the NFL this year, according to Sports Info Solutions. Herbert has attempted 58 play-action passes, most in the league, according to Pro Football Reference and has thrown for 494 yards off those attempts, second to Josh Allen.
The Ravens allowed 435 passing yards to Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders, 343 to Mahomes and 402 to Wentz, all in games that went down to the final possession. Herbert, coming off a 398-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 47-42 win over the Cleveland Browns, has played as well as any of them.
Archuleta, who worked the Ravens’ Week 3 victory over the Detroit Lions, said they’ll have to clean up their tackling and put pressure on Herbert without blitzing to have a chance of containing the Chargers offense.
“The Chargers have got three really good matchup guys that can give most defensive players problems,” the CBS analyst said. “Keenan Allen is one with his releases and how he separates at the top of the route, Mike Williams with his physicality and ability to compete for the ball and then Austin Ekeler, with how he can break down linebackers. That is where the Ravens, this season, would have a hard time matching up one-on-one, consistently. Herbert is so good at finding matchups that I don’t know if they’ll be able to hold up on all three players throughout this game.”
Martindale acknowledged the problem, saying, “It’s going to be like a Kansas City-type challenge.”
“We’ve got to do some different things and change up pictures for upcoming opponents,” he said. Martindale said the Ravens have to recognize check-downs more quickly and take better angles to the ball to avoid letting short throws turn into backbreaking plays, such as the 76-yard touchdown Colts running back Jonathan Taylor scored off a screen to start Monday’s game.
Herbert’s remarkable arm almost belies the way he has played this season. It’s not as if he waits around in the pocket with his eyes trained 50 yards downfield. He gets rid of the ball in an average of 2.67 seconds, tied for eighth fastest in the league, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Meanwhile, he averages just 7.6 air yards per attempt, well behind Jackson’s league-leading 10.7. The 6-foot-6, 237-pound “prototype” will not be the gunslinger in this fascinating matchup, at least not according to the statistics.
As much praise as Ravens coaches have showered on Herbert’s talent, Staley, who made his reputation as a defensive coach, expressed just as much respect for the threat Jackson presents.
“There hasn’t been anybody like Lamar Jackson,” he told Los Angeles reporters. “He’s truly one of a kind. … I think the thing that’s unique about Lamar is that there’s truly danger on every snap — there’s danger running the football and there’s danger throwing the football.”
For that reason, Archuleta said if he were still playing, he’d rather face Herbert than Jackson.
“His running prowess is head and shoulders above anything the league has seen, and he also is capable of making those big throws when they have to have it,” the former safety said of Jackson. “I would choose to go against the thrower hands down. At least when you play against those guys, all your natural instincts and your reads and your keys are still there; you can still play pretty fast. With Jackson, and I guess you can put Kyler Murray in that class, you’re all of a sudden doing things that don’t come natural. You add one more step to your process or two more, because now you’ve got to account for the quarterback. You don’t play as free or as fast.”
Few NFL storylines bring more attention than a matchup of compelling quarterbacks, but Jackson has always downplayed such encounters, saying that he’s preparing for the opposing defense, not Mahomes or Allen or now Herbert. He took a similar tact in his Wednesday news conference, giving Herbert his respect without saying too much.
“He’s a very talented quarterback, and he’s been doing his thing,” Jackson said. “Hopefully, it slows down a little bit when we’re playing against him; we don’t want to hype him up too bad this week. But he’s definitely been balling out — balling out of control.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 2 1/2