The hardest hit Justin Herbert took in Houston didn’t happen.
At least that’s what the NFL’s official statistics will claim.
But anyone who watched the game knows better.
The Chargers weren’t happy about the play Sunday and, a day later, coach Brandon Staley diplomatically declined to dive into the matter.
“There are these rules about commenting on things like that, which will prevent me from proceeding,” Staley said. “I will leave it at that.”
The moment came in the final minute of the first half when pressure from Texans linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill forced Herbert to fire the ball deep and incomplete.
After Herbert released the pass, Grugier-Hill hit him in the back and knocked him down, a notable development since the Chargers quarterback is playing with fractured rib cartilage.
The play was nullified because of offsetting penalties. Houston defensive tackle Maliek Collins was offside and Herbert was called for intentional grounding.
The issue for the Chargers was that Grugier-Hill, who was lined up on the edge, was coming at Herbert unabated after the penalty flag on Collins had been thrown.
Under most circumstances when the defense jumps offside, the offense receives a free play. But when a defender is unabated, officials typically blow the action dead to protect the quarterback.
In this instance, the Chargers not only lost the five yards from the Collins penalty, but they also watched as their ailing quarterback took a shot that could have been avoided.
Officials ruled intentional grounding after Mike Williams broke off his route at the 25-yard line and Herbert’s pass landed inside the five-yard line.
The situation turned out to be somewhat ironic on an afternoon when the Chargers did an excellent job keeping the Texans off their quarterback.
Herbert was sacked only once, on a play when he began to scramble before quickly sliding just short of the line of scrimmage.
Houston was credited with two official hits on Herbert by the NFL’s statisticians. Pro Football Focus had only two of the Chargers’ offensive linemen — left guard Matt Feiler and right guard Zion Johnson — giving up pressures.
Rookie Jamaree Salyer, playing left tackle and making his first NFL start, was the team’s highest-graded pass blocker, according to PFF. He surrendered no pressures on 41 passing snaps.
“It went well,” Salyer said Monday. “Took some adjusting to kind of get those game reps going back at left tackle. … The game is always different. Different type of juice, different type of atmosphere and different players.
“It was kind of an adjustment at first, but eventually got back into the swing of things and I felt pretty good. Some learning things, a learning curve, for sure. Things I still have to fix. I’m excited.”
Salyer, a sixth-round pick out of Georgia, is replacing Pro Bowler Rashawn Slater, who tore his biceps in Week 3 and could miss the rest of the season.
The performance of Salyer in Houston answered a glaring need the Chargers had when Slater went down.
“Good to get him out there and experience the game with his teammates,” Staley said. “He’s a work in progress. We have to make sure that we continue to work at his game and get him in that comfort zone.”
Other observations from a day they almost blew a 20-point lead before making just enough plays to return home as winners:
GROUND REBOUND: They still gained only 81 yards and averaged just three yards a carry, but the Chargers did manage to run the ball 27 times, a total coach Brandon Staley said helped the passing game.
“I loved our commitment to it,” Staley said. “I thought that that allowed our line to really get into rhythm. … We didn't get any big splitters today, but I thought we had a lot of productive runs.”
The Chargers began Sunday as the NFL’s worst team on the ground, averaging 59 yards per game and 2.6 yards per attempt.
Austin Ekeler finished with 13 carries for 60 yards, including two touchdowns. The second of those went for 20 yards, the Chargers’ longest run of the season.
After tying for the NFL lead with 20 touchdowns a season ago, Ekeler had been scoreless through three games. He then scored twice in the second quarter in the span of four plays.
“To get him going today was big,” Staley said. “I felt like he played like a captain. Beyond Austin’s performance on the field, I felt like he really led our football team on offense, just played with the energy that he's known for.”
JUMP START FROM THE DEFENSE: Coming off their 38-10 loss last weekend, the Chargers needed a fast start and Khalil Mack and Nasir Adderley provided it.
After receiving the opening kickoff, Houston’s first possession ended when Mack pressured and eventually hit quarterback Davis Mills, who floated a pass toward the middle of the field, where Adderley was waiting to make his second career interception.
His 30-yard return set up the offense at the Texans’ 25-yard line. Four plays later, Justin Herbert hit Gerald Everett for an 18-yard score just three minutes in.
“It was big because we went down there and scored,” safety Derwin James Jr. said of Adderley’s pickoff. “When he made that play, it was like we got the ball first.”
OFFENSE GETS OFF TRACK: After dominating the first two quarters, the Chargers’ offense went silent, punting on its first three second-half possessions. Those series netted four first downs and 57 yards. One of the drives ended because of a drop by Everett.
Staley said the offense “got off schedule a little bit, got out of rhythm.”
“We definitely didn’t play up to the standard that we would have liked,” Everett said. “To get the victory is fortunate. But we definitely aim higher than that.”
The Chargers were able to rediscover what they lost just in time with a game-securing drive.
Williams played a significant role throughout. With Pro Bowl receiver Keenan Allen missing his third game because of a hamstring injury, Williams finished with seven catches for 120 yards.
REDISCOVERING THEIR BIG-PLAY GROOVE: The Chargers were one of the NFL’s least-explosive offenses through the season’s first three weeks. On Sunday, they produced seven plays that gained at least 20 yards.
The longest was a 50-yard completion from Herbert to Williams. Since the start of the 2020 season, that duo has a league-best 12 connections of at least 40 yards.
“You got to have them in the NFL,” Staley said of such explosive moments. “That's where it's at. … That’s what you got to be able to do to throw for 340 on the road. So it was a team effort and a very good performance for our guys.”
DEFENSIVE RECAP: The Chargers sacked Mills four times — Mack, Morgan Fox, Sebastian Joseph-Day and Jerry Tillery all getting him on the ground. Seven Chargers were credited with hitting Mills at least once.
They also intercepted his passes twice, with slot corner Bryce Callahan getting the second.
The Chargers did surrender a 75-yard touchdown run to rookie Dameon Pierce when Chris Rumph II failed to set the edge, James got blocked and Adderley took an improper angle.
They also gave up a 58-yard Mills completion to Nico Collins, who got behind Adderley and cornerback J.C. Jackson.
MO’ BANDY?: The Chargers lost wide receiver Joshua Palmer for a stretch in the middle of the game, opening an opportunity for Michael Bandy. In just his second NFL appearance, Bandy caught two passes for 49 yards.
Both receptions came during a late first-half drive, helping put the Chargers in position for Dustin Hopkins' 37-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter.
“Mike has been ready,” Staley said. “He's stayed ready. Very confident there in the two-minute drill at the end of the half. … He does what he always does. He's assignment-sound. He's a reliable target. He's got really good feel.”
Bandy was elevated from the practice squad Saturday. His only previous NFL game also came in Houston, in Week 16 last season.
Palmer eventually returned to the game after dealing with what Staley called a foot issue.
IN HIS OWN WORDS: James on the Chargers’ offense sealing the victory with its 12-play, 84-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter: “It’s amazing when you can just drink water, drink Gatorade and watch your brothers over there just carve ’em up. … It’s an amazing feeling.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.