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Justin Herbert's 'Meltdown' Spoils Chargers' Strong Defensive Showing

It's never the Los Angeles Chargers' day. Two things can never go right at once for them. They're a cursed franchise, destined by the universe to be impossibly average in a way that makes no sense. 

Monday night's 20-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was just another page in the Chargers' cruel history. 

The Chargers defense stepped up for once. I know I'm just as stunned as you are, but it's true. They made a pretty sweet Cowboys offense grind it out for all 20 points. 

Defensive Improvement

Believe it or not, the Chargers run defense led the way. Yes, the very same run defense unit that's been the center of about half of all criticisms levied toward Brandon Staley's tenure as the Chargers head coach. 

Dallas couldn't get anything going in the ground game save for a couple of specialty plays, namely the counter-read play on fourth-and-1 and a jet sweep to Brandin Cooks

On pure running back hand-offs, the Cowboys only had a 22.2 percent rushing success rate. RB Tony Pollard handled 15 carries for 30 yards and backup Rico Dowdle only took his three rushes for 12 yards. Khalil Mack, Tuli Tuipulotu and, of all people, Kenneth Murray stepped up to have huge nights. 

That forced a lot of the game onto Dak Prescott's shoulders. Prescott is a good quarterback who can handle that, and he did it to a degree. Prescott was efficient for much of the night and sprinkled in a couple of chunk plays. It's not like he was out of this world good, though. 

Even with Prescott working some magic in the passing game, the Chargers defense was still efficient. It was their best game of the season by overall success rate. 

Per TruMedia, the Chargers only allowed a 40 percent offensive success rate. That's their second-best mark of the season, just 0.3 percent shy of their showing against the Titans. To have that kind of game against a strong Cowboys offense is a miracle for this Chargers defense.

Herbert's Rough Night

But in typical Chargers fashion, it was all for naught. The miraculous defensive performance the Chargers have been waiting for was wasted on an exceptionally rare Justin Herbert meltdown. It was an eclipse of uncharacteristic performances from both sides, the kind of unfortunate coincidence that can only happen to the Chargers. 

Herbert was off. There's no way around it. An "off" night for Herbert is a lot less trainwreck-ish than it is for many other quarterbacks, but he wasn't himself. 

By the numbers, this was far from Herbert's lowest point. Herbert's 40 percent success rate and 6.1 yards per attempt both ranked as his 10th-worst marks since Staley took over as coach in 2021. 

He only took one sack and threw one pick — granted, both on the potential winning drive. The numbers don't paint Herbert in a positive light by any means, but at least statistically, he's been worse before.

Herbert failed the eye test, though. Badly. 

Herbert was spraying throws all over the place. He couldn't find the deep ball whatsoever, and he completely whiffed on a couple of key red zone throws. The fourth-quarter miss to Keenan Allen down the left sideline was as ugly a miss as Herbert has ever had. 

Even the simple checkdowns Herbert normally hits right in stride weren't as consistent as usual. I can't remember the last time a (mostly) healthy Herbert was inaccurate the way he was against the Cowboys.

That kind of ball placement was an issue for Herbert all the way back at Oregon, but the scattershot accuracy went away the moment he entered the league. He's been laser-accurate since that game he took over against the Chiefs as a rookie when Tyrod Taylor had his lung punctured. 

Hell, Herbert had a game this season where he completed more than 85 percent of his passes while throwing nearly 50 times. The dude knows how to get the ball where it needs to go. Usually. 

Strange as it was, there's no reason to panic about Herbert because of this game. Herbert having an uncharacteristically inaccurate night doesn't thrust him from the top of the quarterback pantheon. Bad games happen. He’ll be just fine. 

Tough Road Ahead

For the Chargers at large, though, Herbert's collapse couldn't have come at a worse time. A game they should have won easily because their defense finally gave them something turned into a heartbreaking loss. 

Now the Chargers fall to a 2-3 record, and the schedule isn't going to slow down any time soon. 

In the next six weeks, the Chargers have the Chiefs, Jets, Lions and Ravens on deck. Even the Week 11 away game against the Packers is no walk in the park. The only relatively safe win in that stretch is the Bears in Week 8.

There's a real chance the Chargers only have three or four wins to come December. That outcome would surely have Staley canned by the end of the season. 

That's why this game was such a tragedy. With his job so clearly on the line, Staley finally got his defense to step up when they needed to most. And by some stroke of Chargers-specific luck, the superstar quarterback who has buoyed him for two years completely failed him in that moment. 

Derrik Klassen is an NFL and NFL Draft film analyst with a particular interest in quarterbacks. Klassen’s work is also featured on Bleacher Report and Reception Perception. You can follow him on Twitter (X) at @QBKlass.