SANTA CLARA, Calif. —
A night that started with surgical precision by Justin Herbert ended in a familiar way for the Chargers:
A staggering MASH unit.
Heading into a pivotal, prime-time road game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Chargers were missing their two starting offensive tackles and their two top receivers. Still, they hung tough for most of the game before surrendering the lead in the fourth quarter and losing, 22-16.
Herbert, who left the game briefly at the end of the first half to be evaluated for a concussion, was terse in his assessment of the performance as he gripped the sides of the postgame lectern.
“We just didn’t execute,” he said, clenching his jaw.
That wasn’t the case on the opening drive, when Herbert was mercilessly efficient in carving through San Francisco’s defense on a seven-play, 75-yard march that was capped by a 32-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Carter.
That has proved to be Herbert’s longest touchdown pass of the season.
“Teams are playing four across against him and taking away anything down the field,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, a former San Diego Chargers great who was watching at home. “With the protection problems, he really has no choice but to dump it short.”
All that nickel-and-diming resulted in little more than chump change, as Herbert’s pass production continuously dwindled by the quarter, from 99 yards to 62 to 25 to one. The Chargers converted one of five third downs after halftime.
Herbert’s passer rating was a robust 105.5 after the first two quarters but eventually landed on a ho-hum 73.0.
The visitor’s five possessions in the second half ended thusly: punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs, interception.
The Chargers got all this way — collecting victories over Houston, Cleveland, Denver and Atlanta in the previous five games (along with a loss to Seattle) — but finally ran out of gas. A team can only limp along for so long.
Herbert is one of the prettiest passers in football. He had an astounding throw Sunday night, sliding to his left while being hit, yet still threading an impeccable throw to Carter to his right.
But it’s nearly impossible to keep making those plays with waves of defenders flooding in and precious few available targets.
All that was complicated at the end of the first half when Herbert absorbed a helmet-to-helmet hit from linebacker Dre Greenlaw as he was being dragged to the ground. The collision led to the ejection of Greenlaw and sent the Chargers quarterback to the concussion tent.
Backup quarterback Chase Daniel finished the half for the Chargers and at halftime Herbert was cleared to return to the game.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley said he was satisfied with the process when it came to concussion evaluations on Herbert and linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr., both of whom returned to action.
Herbert shrugged off the incident, saying: “I was scrambling, got hit and the next play they told me I had to go out. … I felt normal after the hit.”
There was no such efficiency in the second half, when the Chargers failed to generate much offense. They had 35 yards passing after halftime.
Actually, considering the young and inexperienced cast of Chargers on the field, the team held up remarkably well against one of the NFC’s hottest teams.
Former New Orleans coach Sean Payton, for one, thinks the 49ers will wind up winning the NFC, especially with the addition of running back Christian McCaffrey. But even with the return of Deebo Samuel on Sunday night, and after a week off to recuperate, San Francisco didn’t take its first lead until McCaffrey’s two-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter.
By that point, the Chargers’ offense was running on fumes and couldn’t get out of the shadow of its own end zone.
The visitors found no pyrrhic victory in that.
“We’ve got guys who’ve got to step up,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “I don’t care who’s out there. If you’re on the field, you’re getting paid to play. You’ve got to step up.”
The Chargers were shut out in the second half, an ominous reality heading into their Week 11 home game Sunday night against Kansas City.
There’s a good chance top receiver Mike Williams will be back for that game, and possibly even five-time Pro Bowl receiver Keenan Allen. With the season winding down, Herbert needs them. Until those two sure-handed targets come back, it’s likely more of the same.