Few quarterbacks have started the new season quite as well as Justin Herbert and Derek Carr, and on Monday night the pair meet on the primetime stage as the Los Angeles Chargers host the Las Vegas Raiders in an all AFC West clash.
Carr entered Week Four as the NFL’s leader in passing yards (1,203) and the recently-named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for September having led the Raiders to their first 3-0 start since 2002, throwing for two touchdowns and at least 300 yards in each of the team’s three wins.
The Raiders are ranked first in the league in total offense (471.0 yards per game) as well as being sixth in scoring offense (30.0 points per game), with Darren Waller, Henry Ruggs III, Hunter Renfrow and Bryan Edwards having all surpassed 200 yards – the first time in NFL history that has happened across the opening three games.
“What you’re seeing is a complete football team out there,” said Chargers head coach Brandon Staley. “I think you start with Derek and how well he is playing. He was the AFC Offensive Player of the Month. He’s operating at an extremely high level.
“You can see that he truly is an extension of the head coach. The way they’re able to operate, a lot of it is because of how sharp Derek is. They’ve really surrounded him with a complete offense. I think that they have weapons in all areas – wideouts, runners, tight ends.”
— NFL (@NFL) September 28, 2021
Carr’s counterpart Herbert is coming off the biggest win of his younger career, having thrown four touchdowns to edge out Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week Three, linking up with Mike Williams for a four-yard score to decide it with 32 seconds remaining.
His brave performance at Arrowhead, particularly in a fourth quarter that saw him convert a crucial fourth-and-nine, prompted head coach Staley to refer to Herbert as a “gangster quarterback”.
The man orchestrating the Raiders’ defense tasked with stopping him is the same man whose unit came up against him on a daily basis last season in former Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.
“We’ve faced really different styles of quarterbacks,” Bradley said. “He’s kind of a combination now. He’s big, tall, strong, very accurate, completion percentage is high, quarterback rating is high.
“He doesn’t get rattled much, is very good against the pressure. Can run when needed, extends plays, looks downfield to make big plays. Receivers know him and they understand that part of it. We got a lot of respect for him now.”
Herbert, who set the NFL rookie record of 31 touchdown passes last season, has gone 88 of 126 passing (69.8 per cent) for 956 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions for a Chargers offense that is ranked ninth in the league (394.7 yards per game).
“It’s hard to just unleash the rush on this guy because they allow him to scramble and he will hurt you bad,” said Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. “If you don’t protect the pocket and you have a lot of coverage down the field against (Mike) Williams and Keenan (Allen) and all of their weapons, this guy will put the ball down and he will really hurt you bad.
“We got hurt last week with some scramble plays, so we got to really be careful with our rush.”
Herbert threw for 640 yards and four touchdowns in the two meetings with the Raiders last season, his four-yard touchdown pass to Donald Parham being reversed as the Chargers lost the first before the quarterback crossed the plane from one yard out to win the second contest in overtime.
Carr arrives on the back of a 31-28 overtime victory against the Miami Dolphins, during which he threw for 386 yards and two scores, while Peyton Barber rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown in the absence of the injured Josh Jacobs, who is listed as questionable for Monday night’s game.
“He’s just been poised,” said Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill. “Obviously, another year in that system, I think the comfort level is there. You can tell he has complete control of it. He’s making it happen. He’s the quarterback, he’s directing everybody where they need to go and the guys have a comfort level for him.”
Both teams entered the season with question marks lingering on defense, the Raiders currently ranking 14th having been 30th overall in 2020 and the Chargers sitting 19th after finishing 23rd last year.
Maxx Crosby has two sacks, a league-high 10 quarterback hits and a tied-first 15 pressures for Las Vegas, in addition to help from former Chargers in linebacker Denzel Perryman, who leads the team with 36 tackles, and cornerback Casey Hayward, who has allowed just three catches so far this campaign.
Joey Bosa has 1.5 sacks for Los Angeles and looks set to feature after nursing a foot injury last week, while rookie cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. has recorded two interceptions, including a spectacular diving snag against Mahomes, along with four pass defenses.
Watch the Raiders at the Chargers from SoFi Stadium in Monday Night Football live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.15am in the early hours of Tuesday morning.