Over the course of his six-year career, Joe Flacco has generally done an excellent job at avoiding interceptions. Remember that quarterbacks are much more likely to be intercepted on deep passes, and Flacco tends to throw deep. Flacco has the 5th highest average length of pass this year according to NFLGSIS, after ranking 3rd in 2012, and 8th in 2011. But despite attempting more risky throws, Flacco posted better-than-average interception rates in each of his first five seasons. And he did that despite completion percentages that were often at or below league average.
Before the Super Bowl, I asked if Flacco was simply lucky to keep avoiding interceptions. That seemed like a good explanation for how an inaccurate passer who throws often downfield could have such a low interception rate. But other quarterbacks, like Donovan McNabb, sustained those traits for a long time.
This year, Flacco ranks in the top 7 in both interceptions and interception rate. So has lady luck simply switched allegiances? I looked at all 14 of Flacco’s interceptions this season to determine the cause.
1) Denver, 2nd quarter, 11:47 remaining, 3rd-and-9 from the Baltimore 16, trailing 7-0
Brandon Stokley is the primary receiver on the play. He’s lined up in the slot to Flacco’s left, and ends up running across the middle of the field at the first down marker. He’s in single coverage, but Flacco’s throw is a little short, and Chris Harris makes an outstanding play diving across for the interception. You can view the play here.
2) Denver, 4th quarter, 12:13 remaining, 4th-and-1 from the Baltimore 29, trailing 42-17
You remember this one: it’s already desperation time for the Ravens, although that doesn’t excuse the poor throw by Flacco. Ray Rice is lined up in the slot and runs a completely predictable out route. Linebacker Danny Trevathan reads it and jumps the route, but Flacco’s pass as bad as his read on this play. The play was memorable because Trevathan dropped the ball just before crossing the end zone, negating a touchdown and giving the ball back to the Ravens. Of course, his blunder kept the game close for a bit longer, which allowed Peyton Manning to throw a record-tying seventh touchdown. You can view the play here.
3) Buffalo, 1st quarter, 5:37 remaining, 3rd-and-7 from the Ravens 23, trailing 3-0
Flacco gets fooled by the coverage on this one. The Ravens line up with two wide receivers to the right side of the formation: Tandon Doss in the slot and Torrey Smith to the outside. Smith will run a go route to take his defender out of the zone, as the primary read is Doss running an out to the sticks. Pre-snap, Buffalo shows Cover 2 man, which would be (from Flacco’s perspective) the perfect defense for this play: Doss will be left single-covered, and the man lined up across from Doss pre-snap is already to Doss’ inside shoulder. But Mike Pettine is not going to make life so easy for Flacco. Aaron Williams is lined up on the outside over Smith, but the call isn’t Cover 2 man: instead, Williams passes Smith off to the safety after a few yards, and stays at home. When Doss makes his way into Williams’ zone, it’s an easy interception. You can view the play here.
4) Buffalo, 2nd quarter, 8:14 remaining, 1st-and-20 from the Ravens 20, trailing 13-7
This play is much easier to analyze: Flacco’s throw to Ed Dickson was high but catchable; instead, the tight end deflected it in Jim Leonhard’s hands for the easy pick. But it’s not fair to give Flacco a pass on this play, either: Quarterbacks are taught to avoid throwing high over the middle for exactly this reason. Flacco had good protection, but just made a bad throw; of course, blaming Flacco doesn’t absolve Dickson from blame. You can view the play here.
5) Buffalo, 3rd quarter, 10:34 remaining, 3rd-and-11 from the Buffalo 19, trailing 20-7
This one falls on everyone: Flacco, the line, the receiver, and the play call. Flacco is looking for Torrey Smith for the touchdown, but OLB Jerry Hughes gets to him quickly, forcing Flacco to throw a bad pass off his back foot. It’s underthrown — understandable given the pressure — and a stumble by Smith doesn’t help matters, allowing Aaron Williams to grab his second interception of the day. Still, this play had no chance of succeeding, and Pettine and Hughes deserve credit for that. But Flacco cost his team 3 points by not throwing it out of the back of the end zone. You can view the play here.
6) Buffalo, 3rd quarter, 5:01 remaining, 1st-and-10 from the Buffalo 46, trailing 20-14
This next interception falls on the quarterback. Baltimore lines up in shotgun, with four wide receivers (two on each side of the formation) and a halfback. The two inside receivers run clear out routes deep, while the two outside receivers (Tandon Doss and Marlon Brown) run shallow crosses. These two routes intersect, which leads to one problem: Kiko Alonso is planted in the middle of the field. As Doss (on the left) runs to the right, Alonso stays set as Brown (who lined up wide right) begins to run his drag across the field. Flacco throws the short pass to Brown, but Alonso is right there, and easily undercuts the route. Flacco either made a bad throw or a bad read, if not both. Crossing routes are very easy to defend when you know they’re coming, and the Ravens ran a lot of them against Buffalo: here, it led to an easy interception. You can view the play here.
7) Buffalo, 4th quarter, 1:04 remaining, 3rd-and-8 from the Buffalo 48, trailing 23-20
The Ravens have one final chance to tie or win the game, but Flacco throws his fifth interception. The star of the play is safety Da’Norris Searcy, who tips the pass into Alonso’s hands for the interception. Flacco looks to Dallas Clark, who is running a comeback route just deep enough to pick up the first down. Searcy, the deep safety to Clark’s side, easily reads the play, which allows him to race towards Clark once the pass is thrown. Searcy breaks up the play by tipping the ball into the air, allowing Alonso to get the credit. Not a bad pass, but a lower throw would have given Clark a better chance of coming down with the ball. Flacco staring down Clark didn’t make Searcy’s job any more difficult, either. You can view the play here.
8) Miami, 4th quarter, 8:24 remaining, 3rd-and-22 from the Ravens 9, leading 23-16
You never want to throw a fourth-quarter interception when leading, but you really, really don’t want to throw a pick six in that situation. I’m not sure how much of the blame falls on Flacco here, though. It’s third and long, and Dion Jordan gets by LT Bryant McKinnie almost immediately. The fourth overall pick in the draft gets a finger on the ball as the ball leaves Flacco’s hands, which leads to a duck and an easy pick six. The fact that this is McKinnie’s last game as a Raven is telling. In this situation, many teams would run a draw play, and the result here is why. You can view the play here.
9) Cleveland, 2nd quarter, 3:18 remaining, 2nd-and-10 from the Ravens 40, trailing 14-3
Flacco looks deep for Jacoby Jones but is intercepted by Joe Haden. This one is a horrible underthrow; I’m not sure if Flacco just threw it late or the ball was held up by wind, but it’s a good ten yards underthrown. My guess is the throw was late or Jones wasn’t his primary read: to hit Jones in stride, Flacco would have needed to throw it 10-15 yards farther down the field, and he already threw the ball 50 yards in the air. The running back in the flat would have been the wiser choice. You can view the play here.
10) Cincinnati, 2nd quarter, 11:27 remaining, 3rd-and-10 from the Bengals 33, leading 10-0
In some ways, you want to rip Flacco for an unconscionable interception here. Leading by 10, in field goal range, Flacco throws a pick with no Raven anywhere near linebacker Vincent Rey. But Flacco isn’t the only one to blame: Ray Rice misses a block and three Bengals end up pressuring Flacco. This is a pass that shouldn’t have been thrown, but a sack would have likely knocked the Ravens out of field goal range, so you can understand what he was thinking. Regardless, Flacco was already in Carlos Dunlap’s grasp when he went to throw, and Michael Johnson came in and knocked Flacco’s arm as he released the ball, giving Rey the easy interception. You can view the play here.
11) Cincinnati, 4th quarter, 12:44 remaining, 3rd-and-10 from the Bengals 49, leading 17-3
Much of the credit for this interception goes Mike Zimmer, but Flacco is being paid too much money to fall for these tricks. The Ravens line up in shotgun with two receivers to each side. All four receivers are running deep, and tight end Ed Dickson — lined up inside to Flacco’s right — is the primary read. I thought this was a fascinating call by Zimmer, and a tricky one to analyze, so I e-mailed Chris Brown of Smart Football to see his thoughts.
Chris noted that Cincinnati showed Cover 1 man (press man with a single deep safety) pre-snap, but the real defense was Cover 2 man. Cornerback Terence Newman, who was lined up off the outside right receiver, bails to play a deep half safety. So what can the quarterback do in this situation? Flacco should be looking down the middle and recognize this rotation. Instead, he gets fooled, thinking he’s safetly throwing away from the middle safety.
This is a good play to trick a young quarterback: the defender covering Dickson was just showing blitz (he would retreat and cover the outside receiver), and the middle linebacker moved from a blitz position right before the snap to cover Dickson. Then Newman, now at safety, swoops in for the interception. You can view the play here.
One bonus item from Chris: Baltimore frequently lines up like this on 3rd and long, so the Bengals were prepared: — this is a gameplan call that preyed on Flacco’s tendency to rotely throw away a middle safety, and tempo or formations would’ve made the Bengals get out of that.
12) Chicago, 2nd quarter, 8:45 remaining, 1st-and-10 from the Ravens 28, leading 10-9
Flacco wants to throw a short pass to Vonta Leach, but David Bass reads it and reaches into the air to pick it off. Rice could have made a better block on Bass, and Bass made an exceptionally athletic play, but still, this one is all on Flacco, who makes a lazy throw in a game the Ravens lost in overtime. You can view the play here.
13) Chicago, 2nd quarter, 1:07 remaining, 3rd-and-16 from the Ravens 22, leading 17-10
This one is ugly for a different reason: Flacco throws to Dallas Clark with three Bears defenders in the area, and Jon Bostic makes the easy interception. If you’re feeling generous, credit Flacco for making a throw right on the money, but the issue was the read. Bostic was actually the one who covered Clark from the snap, so it couldn’t have been that Flacco missed him. Instead, he forced the throw when there was little reason to and little chance for success, allowing Chicago to kick a field goal before halftime. You can view the play here.
14) New York Jets, 2nd quarter, 8:46 remaining, 2nd-and-9 from the Jets 17, leading 6-3
This looks like just a bad pass. Flacco appears to be throwing to Marlon Brown (Torrey Smith was also in the area), but the ball basically falls into Antonio Cromartie’s lap. It is never good when two receivers occupy the same territory, and Brown may have run the wrong route, which would make this a less egregious error from Flacco. You can view the play here.
Flacco’s high interception total isn’t a fluke: only a couple of the interceptions were due to tips. The struggles of the offensive line have played a factor, directly leading to a couple of interceptions and indirectly causing a lot of third-and-longs. Flacco has thrown 80 passes on 3rd-and-7 or longer, and eight have been intercepted. That’s three more than any other quarterback in the league in that situation. Meanwhile, from 2010 to 2012, Flacco threw just 6 interceptions on 348 passes on 3rd-and-7+. Part of it may be Flacco trying to do too much, either to justify the contract or as a practical reality of the team’s struggling running game. But he’s not an accurate enough quarterback to make those difficult throws. Combined with some lazy throws and some poor reads, and you have a player who has set a career high in interceptions.