Chargers suffer fourth one-score loss of the season

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert has 21 one-score losses since entering the league in 2020, three more than any other quarterback in that span. Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- As many Los Angeles Chargers players showered and dressed before quickly leaving the locker room after Sunday's 41-38 loss to the Detroit Lions, quarterback Justin Herbert sat at his locker in full uniform and gazed forward.

It was Herbert's 21st one-score loss since he entered the league in 2020, three more than any other quarterback in that span.

"I think that's the NFL," said Herbert, who had 323 yards, four touchdowns and an interception Sunday.

Herbert has played in 22 games decided by three points or fewer since he entered the league in 2020, four more than any other quarterback over that span, and is 9-13 in those games. (The next closest quarterback is Kirk Cousins, who played in 18 of those games, and is 10-8.)

After two blowout victories that sparked joyful locker room celebrations, and claims of the team having a "different swag," Sunday's loss was a return to normal for the Chargers (4-5). This defense, laden with star names, again performed like one of the league's worst units while the offense had its highest scoring game of the season.

Still, the Chargers' struggles can't just be blamed on one factor.

Herbert has played in 47 games that were within one score in the fourth quarter, second to New Orleans Saints quarterback Derek Carr (49). Herbert has thrown 13 interceptions in those situations, five more than any other quarterback. (Carr has thrown eight, tied with Lamar Jackson, Taylor Heinicke and Tua Tagovailoa).

Herbert's latest late-game interception came in Week 6 against the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth quarter, with the Chargers losing by three points, when cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepted him to effectively end the game. Against the Lions, he threw an interception in the first quarter, the Chargers' only turnover of the game

"I can't make mistakes like that," Herbert said, "and expect to just be able to come back and win games like that."

Beyond Herbert's late-game turnover struggles in the Chargers' close finishes, much of the reason they end up in these situations in the first place is because of their middling defense.

The Chargers hired Brandon Staley in 2021 because of his work as a defensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams in 2020, when they allowed the fewest yards and points per game in the NFL. Staley was supposed to turn the Chargers' defense into a top unit, and they have given him the players to do so.

The Chargers traded for Khalil Mack, one of the league's top outside linebackers whom Staley coached when he was outside linebackers coach in Chicago, signed cornerback J.C. Jackson, and added defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox to go along with Pro Bowlers Derwin James Jr. and Joey Bosa.

But in his third season, Staley's defense is still one of the worst in the NFL. Over his three seasons, the Chargers rank 30th in defensive efficiency, 29th in points allowed per game (24.6), 31st in yards per play allowed (5.7), and 29th in third down conversion rate (42%).

After the Lions game, Staley said that the Chargers would need to return to the "fundamentals" of playing defense: "Playing blocks, leveraging the football, tackling and then staying connected in coverage.

"I know the players that we have on this team, I know the group that I've been coaching for nine games, and it is good enough to beat anybody we play."

It's a point that Staley has repeated after the five losses this season -- four of which have come within three points -- but one his defense's performances mostly haven't supported, except when playing struggling offenses.

They beat up on the Tyson Bagent-led Bears, the Zach Wilson-led Jets and the Aidan O'Connell-led Raiders. The lone exception came against the Cowboys, one of the league's top offenses, where the Chargers allowed just 20 points, the Cowboys' third-lowest total this season (they still gave up seven catches for 117 yards to wide receiver CeeDee Lamb).

Sunday felt like a new low for this defense. James called the Lions' willingness to go for a fourth down conversion late in the game "disrespectful." Mack told ESPN that it was the most frustrating game of the year for the defense because of how the Lions beat them.

"They didn't physically move us off the ball or do anything special," Mack said. "They just beat us with play-action passes and screens, things you can fix with everybody running to the ball."

In the end, the Lions tallied 533 yards and five touchdowns, including 177 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the first half.

Staley has shouldered the blame for this defense publicly, often telling reporters, "It's on me," as he did after the Lions loss, citing a need to improve coaching technique. But each week, the Chargers' issues on defense remain.

"It's frustrating as hell," James said. "Because like I say, our job, we want to go out and dominate. We want to go out and execute, and we want to go out and get off the field. So for us not to go out there and get it done, it's all a reflection, and [we] just [need to] look in the mirror."