When the Kansas City Chiefs visited Los Angeles early in the 2020 season, the Chargers made headlines with their last-minute quarterback change. Starter Tyrod Taylor suffered a punctured lung during a pregame injection, and then-rookie Justin Herbert — the sixth overall pick of the 2020 draft — entered the game on last minute’s notice.
The Oregon product likely rendered the entire week’s preparation irrelevant as he began his career with a 300-yard passing performance. The Chiefs were fortunate to escape with a 23-20 overtime victory. Herbert would go on to win the NFL’s 2020 offensive rookie of the year, never looking back from his stellar debut.
As the Chiefs prepare to see him for a second time this season, Herbert has certainly earned their respect.
“Every time I turn the tape on, I’m amazed by how good he is,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said in his weekly media remarks .”Accurate. He’s big. He’s athletic [and] really smart.
“He’s the whole package. I have a lot of respect for (Las Vegas Raiders quarterback) Derek Carr — but this guy is going to be a real challenge for us, and I know our guys expect that. He makes that whole thing go. This is one of the elite quarterbacks, in my opinion.”
Safety Tyrann Mathieu — speaking to reporters on Tuesday — agreed with his coach about Herbert’s place in the league hierarchy and the talent of the quarterback’s supporting cast.
“It’s a big challenge,” Mathieu said of preparing for Herbert. “Talk about one of the best quarterbacks in the league — (he’s) got a lot of skill with playmakers on the field. This is a big challenge for us. I think this game is probably the most important game we’ve played up until this point. So, it’s going to take all of us to kind of get it done.
“We know what’s at stake. Obviously, the Chargers are a pretty good football team, and we expect those guys to give us their best shot. I think the last time we played those guys — it went their way, so we’ve got that on our mind. So, we’re really just hoping we can go in there with some great energy and kind of just take over the place.”
Mathieu referred to the Chiefs’ Week 3 loss to the Chargers at Arrowhead. Herbert threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter as Los Angeles won 30-24.
The Chiefs’ defense is markedly improved since Week 3, coming off a dominant six-game stretch in which no opponent has scored more than 17 points. Spagnuolo, however, has the perspective that this week’s quick turnaround presents unique challenges.
“I’m not so sure you can ever be (prepared) because you can never get your eyes on as much on film real quickly,” Spagnuolo said of game planning on a short week. “We have to feed something to the players.
“We have to be ready to maybe tweak, change, add. We wouldn’t normally do that during a normal week. We wouldn’t try to add things on a normal Friday or Saturday, but we have to treat this like we’re in the game — and at halftime, we make an adjustment. I think the guys have to have that mindset when the week is really short.”
Spagnuolo also warned of becoming complacent at a time his unit has earned widespread recognition for its improvement.
“We can’t take it with us for this game,” he said of the recent success. “We’re hoping to duplicate that — but I do think this offense we’re getting ready to play is one of the better ones we’re going to play all year long. I really feel that way. I’m glad the guys have done what they’ve done. When it’s all said and done — it really does come down to points allowed. That’s what we’re most focused on.”
Mathieu concurred, also stressing the importance of improved communication as a team from the first matchup.
“If you go back to the first game,” he recalled, “It came down to a lot of critical plays — a lot of third downs, a couple down plays that they were able to convert on. I think if you look back on it — it was really us and our communication and misalignments that really allowed those guys to win those situations.
“So, we’ve got that on our mind. I think situational communication is going to be critical for us in this game. I think when you’re playing against a quarterback like that with those kind of athletes on the field — we understand that fourth down is like third down to those guys. So, we’ve got to be ready.”