Justin Herbert was pressured more than 20 times last weekend by a Carolina defense that rarely blitzes.
On Sunday, the Chargers rookie quarterback will face a team that starts blitzing roughly around the final note of the national anthem.
“There are going to be times when I may get hit, I may get put on the ground,” Herbert said. “It’s all about stepping back up and dusting off and getting ready for the next play.”
The No. 6 pick in the draft will make his third consecutive start Sunday at Tampa Bay, which employs Todd Bowles as its defensive coordinator. Through three games, Bowles has called blitzes on nearly 44% of the opposition’s drop-backs.
Only Pittsburgh and Baltimore have blitzed more frequently. The Buccaneers are tied for third in the NFL with 12 sacks and tied for seventh with 31 quarterback pressures, numbers that must be eye-catching to a young quarterback still finding his way.
“They bring it from everywhere,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “We’re going to have to protect the quarterback, get rid of the ball in places where we need to throw it. But we have a plan for that.”
To combat Tampa Bay’s pressure, the Chargers could rely more on quick passes. Ideally, in those situations, Herbert would get the ball to Austin Ekeler, his most elusive weapon.
An already dicey situation was made even more challenging Friday when the Chargers ruled out right tackle Bryan Bulaga (back) and right guard Trai Turner (groin) because of injuries.
Trey Pipkins, who played about half the game against the Panthers, will fill in for Bulaga. Veteran Ryan Groy will start in place of Turner. Groy began the season on the practice squad.
A third-round pick in 2019, Pipkins struggled against Carolina playing on the opposite side, where he spent most of his rookie season. He was better the week before against Kansas City after entering early for an injured Bulaga.
The Panthers sacked Herbert twice, one of which resulted in a lost fumble. They hit him eight times and nearly knocked him out of the game with a shot to the ribs.
“I could have got the ball out quicker,” Herbert said of the play on which he fumbled. “I could have stepped up farther. There’s plenty of things I could have done to prevent that from happening.”
With Tyrod Taylor still recovering from a punctured lung and a rib injury, Herbert will make history Sunday simply by taking the opening snap. That’s assuming Tom Brady also takes Tampa Bay’s first snap.
The game would mark the first time there has been an age gap of 20-plus years between starting quarterbacks since at least 1950, according to the NFL. Growing up in Oregon, Herbert, 22, said he was a fan of Brady, who turned 43 in August.
“He’s done some exceptional things,” Herbert said. “He’s been as good as anyone who’s ever done it. The opportunity to line up across from him on Sunday is going to be really cool.”
And equally daunting. Brady is 17-2 during the regular season when starting against rookie first-round quarterbacks. He never has lost to a rookie quarterback at home.
Brady, who's in his 21st season and first with the Buccaneers, spent two decades with New England, helping the Patriots win six Super Bowls.
Herbert was barely 2½ years old when Brady made his NFL debut.
“I hope to still be playing in the NFL in 20 years,” Herbert said, smiling. “That’s definitely a lot of time to learn and grow. That’d be an awesome opportunity.”
Taylor still has not returned to practice, but the Chargers also haven’t placed him on injured reserve, something they could have done if they were certain he’d miss at least three games.
That suggests the Chargers might believe he could be back next week in advance of their Monday night game at New Orleans.
In his place, Herbert has shown signs of promise, touchdown passes to Keenan Allen and Jalen Guyton among the moments that have stood out. Center Dan Feeney said this week that Herbert is on his way to becoming “an all-time player” for the franchise.
But he also has turned the ball over three times for an offense that has gained yards but failed to produce enough points.
“I thought last week he did some grown-up things,” Lynn said. “He got us out of some plays. He saw different looks. He started recognizing defenses. The more he plays the more of that stuff he’s going to see and help the team.”
Along with a patched-up offensive line, Herbert will be forced to operate without wide receiver Mike Williams, the Chargers’ top deep threat. A hamstring injury suffered against the Panthers will keep Williams sidelined Sunday.
Last weekend, Williams finished with only one reception. A lack of proven depth at receiver helped result in Herbert targeting Allen 19 times against Carolina. Lynn said he anticipates the Buccaneers double-teaming Allen from the start.
“Someone else is going to have to make those plays to get them off of that double team,” Lynn said. “It’s a hell of an opportunity for our young receivers.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.