INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Damone Clark waited patiently as Justin Herbert faced pressure all around, then made his move, forcing the Chargers quarterback to rush a pass to Quentin Johnston that cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepted.
That game-sealing interception helped the Cowboys notch a 20-17 victory and dropped the Chargers to 2-3 on the season.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn dialed up the pressure late in the game, similar to what Miami did in week one against the Chargers. Before the interception, Micah Parsons had sacked Herbert on the previous play, which was their only sack of the game, but it came at the perfect time.
The Cowboys pass rush may have only had one sack, but they disrupted Herbert and the offense all night.
“They are one of the top pass-rush units in the league,” Chargers head coach Staley said. “I think that our inability to run the football allowed their rush to really express itself.”
They hit Herbert eight times and were able to tackle him in running situations. He even took a big helmet-to-helmet hit on a one-yard quarterback run by Jayron Kearse three minutes into the second quarter.
The fact is Herbert was off on Monday night, especially on two key plays. One came with 1:30 left in the first half when he dropped back and missed a wide-open Keenan Allen, who had made a good move toward the outside on DaRon Bland. Herbert overthrew him.
If he hadn’t, the Chargers would have been in field goal range to allow them to get at least three points before the half. Instead, they punted.
“I have to make more plays as a quarterback,” Herbert said.
The second one came after a Brandin Cooks touchdown. At 11:19 left in the game, Allen shook off Bland again, this time with a double move that Herbert pumped. Bland flew out of bounds while Allen was wide open, and Herbert overthrew him again. Allen would have had one defender to beat to score six. Instead, they punted again.
“Keenan ran two great routes, and I missed him,” Herbert said. “That’s on me as a quarterback. We have those explosive opportunities, and we have to capitalize on those.”
Allen, a veteran receiver, told his quarterback to shake it off.
“He was a down on it,” Allen said. “He’s upset that he missed the pass. Obviously just kept telling him naw, bro, we’re going to win the game, bro. We don’t are going to make something happen and just keep going.”
He made some other throws, but these two could have changed the outcome of the game. Instead, the narrative out there is ‘Herbert isn’t clutch.’
“Cap,” Allen said.
Cap means “that is a lie.” Herbert is usually able to stand in and deliver key throws in the face of pressure.
“Even if I was, that’s on me to be able to calm my feet down, stay good in the pocket and hand deliver that strike,” Herbert said.
That is why Herbert was paid top money in the offense because he gives this team the best chance to win because of his composure and ability to hit the receiver.
“That’s just part of ball,” Staley said, defending his quarterback.
It is clear that this offense misses receiver Mike Williams, who is out the rest of the season with a torn ACL, but they need to adapt.
Herbert needs to make those plays moving forward like he has in the past if this team is going to have a chance to make the playoffs.
“We are not listening to that shit,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said about the narrative that Herbert is not clutch.
On that punt from the Herbert misfire, cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor, similar to last season against the Broncos in week five, shoved a Cowboys defender into the returner, which turned into a fumble after Jalen Tolbert touched it. Chargers linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga recovered the ball.
It set up the offense with the ball on the Dallas 20-yard line. The Chargers faced fourth-and-goal after advancing to the one-yard line after a Gilmore penalty in the red zone. Herbert hit a pass to tight end Gerald Everett for the touchdown.
The Chargers’ defense has been questioned this season for not being able to stop the run or giving up too many explosive plays. They couldn’t get off the field on the second-to-last Cowboys drive.
They converted three third-and-long situations by an illegal contact, Dak Prescott hitting CeeDee Lamb for an 18-yard reception, and a Cooks 11-yard reception.
“Focus in a little more and get off the field on third-and-18, third-and-15, third-and-10 those are the chances in the favor of the defense, so we got to just start winning those downs,” Chargers safety Derwin James explained.
Those conversions led to a Cowboys field goal that the Chargers couldn’t match. Prescott looked composed against the Chargers and was a perfect 11-for-11 when throwing to Lamb or Cooks.
The defense was able to sack Prescott five times.
“I thought that we were really good, most of the night, on third down,” Staley said. “I thought that we pressured the quarterback at a high level. Dak [Prescott] made a couple of plays on that last drive and it hurt us.”
Coming into the matchup, there were questions about Lamb being a number one receiver or his lack of involvement in the offense. He was plenty involved on Monday night, catching seven passes for 117 yards.
“He’s one of the top receivers in the league,” Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. said. “They’re going to get there sometime, but we got to just play better on our end and just finish.”
The Chargers’ secondary struggled to cover him, and Cooks, that mixed in with numerous defensive penalties, hurt them.
“They made a couple of plays, but I wouldn’t change any of the calls,” Staley explained. “We were in really good defenses for the matchups that they have at receiver, and, obviously, against a mobile quarterback — we rushed five on one of them. We just didn’t make the plays down the stretch to win on defense.”
The Chargers must quickly put this game behind them as they will travel to Kansas City to face the division-leading Chiefs.
It doesn’t get any easier, especially after a tough loss, but they need to protect, limit the penalties, and cut down on the explosive plays, especially next weekend.
“We let ourselves down,” Mack said. “Six days to prepare, so got to flush this one after tonight and just get ready for the next one.”