This Los Angeles Chargers loss, a 38-31 setback to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium, didn’t come down to the last play like last week’s fumbled hook-and-ladder against the Panthers. It didn’t come in overtime, like the one against the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks ago. But it was another close defeat that 22-year-old rookie quarterback Justin Herbert almost pulled out.
Herbert, starting his third straight game since Tyrod Taylor went out because of a punctured lung, battled valiantly for much of the game, staking his team to a 24-7 lead without his go-to guy, running back Austin Ekeler, who injured his hamstring in the first quarter. Herbert, who threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns on 20-of-25 passing, played well — throwing touchdown passes to Tyron Johnson, Donald Parham and Jalen Guyton.
But his youth, and the youth of the Chargers, also led to some rough moments. Herbert threw an interception to Carlton Davis with 2:35 left as he was attempting to lead the Chargers on a game-winning drive. Rookie running back Joshua Kelley fumbled the handoff deep in Chargers territory just before halftime with the Bolts up 24-7, changing the momentum the Chargers had built.
It was the second straight game Kelley coughed up the ball in a bad moment, turning the game around. The Chargers were also without two veteran offensive linemen — 11-year tackle Bryan Bulaga and seven-year guard Trai Turner, both of whom they had acquired over the summer to help shore up protection.
All of this youth came against the experience of 43-year-old Tom Brady and, when it counted most, Rob Gronkowski — who came up with a huge 29-yard reception toward the end of the game.
Big loss: The injury to Ekeler has to be the most concerning. He is their top running back and poised to vault into a starring role with the departure of Melvin Gordon. Ekeler is a sturdy back and a tough receiver who can often gain yards after the catch. He is someone they count on time and again, so him being out for a significant time would be rough.
QB breakdown: The play of Herbert, even in a loss, was outstanding. He made several crucial and long passes and checked off like a pro. He will only get better.
More heartbreak: The Chargers have lost another game in tough fashion late, continuing a trend that contributed to their 5-11 record last season. That doesn’t make them feel any better, but it’s something to work on. Next week doesn’t get any easier. They are headed to New Orleans to play the Saints, who could have all-everything wide receiver Michael Thomas back alongside future Hall of Famer Drew Brees.