Justin Herbert sizzles while Tua Tagovailoa struggles in marquee matchup

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Zing!

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley pumped his fist as his quarterback, Justin Herbert, threw yet another dart, this one a 9-yard completion on an out route that whizzed past the ear of Miami Dolphins cornerback Kader Kohou to receiver Keenan Allen for a critical first down with 10:05 left in the fourth quarter.

Allen pointed to Herbert after the play. Herbert enthusiastically pointed back.

“The pass was amazing,” Allen said. “Just being on the same page on third down, when we had to have it. And just having that trust. He was able to throw a laser.” 

The impressive throw was a prime example of the precision accuracy that Herbert put on display all evening. 

The much-hyped shootout between Herbert and 2020 draft classmate Tua Tagovailoa never really materialized on Sunday at SoFi Stadium. While Herbert sizzled, Tagovailoa and the Miami offense performed like they were stuck in mud most of the night.

The result was an important, 23-17 victory for the Bolts, keeping them in the postseason conversation by improving to 7-6 overall. 

With the loss, the Dolphins dropped their second game in a row, falling to 8-5 on the year.

Herbert finished 39-of-51 for 367 yards and a touchdown, posting a 102.2 passer rating. He completed passes to nine different receivers.

Meanwhile, Tagovailoa struggled with accuracy for a second straight week, completing just 10-of-28 passes for 145 yards. The NFL leader in passer rating entering Sunday’s contest, Tagovailoa posted a 65.3 passer rating.

Herbert received a game ball afterward from Staley. He downplayed the matchup with Tagovailoa most of the week leading up to Sunday’s contest and heaped praised on his teammates for the big win.

“We’ve got a lot of respect for Tua,” Herbert said. “He’s an incredible quarterback. He’s made some big plays this year. I think it’s just a credit to our defense for the week of preparation they put in together.”

With his effort, Herbert (13,056) passed Andrew Luck (12,957) for the most passing yards through the first three NFL seasons in league history. While Herbert remained reluctant to puff his chest, his teammates did the talking.

“He’s the X-factor,” receiver Mike Williams said. “Obviously, he’s been doing that since he’s been here. Everybody knows what type of player he is. He believes in this team, and we’ve just got to continue to follow him.” 

Added Allen: “He’s just starting. He’s about to blow this league away.”

L.A.’s top three receivers in Josh Palmer, Allen and Williams had played a total of five snaps together entering Sunday’s contest. With all three on the field, the Chargers finally looked like the dangerous offense NFL observers expected at the start of the season.

Williams finished with six receptions for 112 yards and a score, while Allen added 12 receptions for 92 yards and Palmer finished with four receptions for 53 yards. 

Running back Austin Ekeler added 104 scrimmage yards and a 1-yard touchdown run. 

Miami’s first touchdown came on a fluky fumble recovery for a score. Tyreek Hill returned a Jeff Wilson Jr. fumble for a 57-yard touchdown. Hill got the ball when left tackle Terron Armstead flipped it out of a scrum after safety Alohi Gilman stripped Wilson of the ball. 

Midway through the third quarter, Tagovailoa found Hill for a 60-yard touchdown when cornerback Michael Davis fell down in coverage, cutting L.A.’s advantage to 17-14. But that would be as close as Miami would get. 

Playing without frontline players like defensive end Joey Bosa, safety Derwin James, defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day and defensive back Bryce Callahan, Staley did a masterful job of taking away what Miami does well — throwing in the middle of the field and taking deep shots.

One of the worst run defenses statistically in the NFL, the Bolts also held Miami to 92 yards rushing.

“We just wanted to get on them,” Gilman said. “A lot of guys when they play them, they play them a little softer, top-down [coverage]. But we were trying to be aggressive with them, because we know they got gas — speed. So we wanted to get on them early and make them feel that pressure. It’s easier to dink and dunk when you sit back. So that was our approach today.” 

Staley summed up the Chargers’ defensive approach even more simply.

“Don’t let fast guys run down the field,” the coach said. “When you let fast guys run down the field, and you let them run through zones with no one around, then it’s going to turn into a track meet. And guess what? You’re not as fast as they are. No one is.” 

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Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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