On Tuesday, I look at the quarterbacks who have thrown the most pick sixes. As a follow-up, I wondered: what’s the record for pick sixes by a defensive player against a quarterback? Rod Woodson is the career leader in interception return scores with twelve, but only two of those came against the same quarerback (Steve McNair, thirteen years apart). As it turns out, there have been at least three defensive players who have scored interception returns against the same quarterback.1) Ronde Barber vs. Donovan McNabb
Perhaps the most famous play of Barber’s career was his 92-yard pick six to clinch the 2002 NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia. The Eagles, trailing by 10, had driven down to the Tampa Bay 10-yard line with just under four minutes left in the game. But Barber fooled McNabb into an easy interception, and raced down the right sideline for the game-clinching score. That was the second turnover of the day for Barber, who forced a McNabb fumble on a sack in the third quarter.
In 2006, Barber took back two McNabb passes for touchdowns in a defensive battle in Tampa Bay. The first pick six produced the only points in the first half, while the second gave the Bucs a 17-0 lead. But McNabb responded with three touchdowns, with the final one coming on a 52-yard reception by Brian Westbrook with less than a minute remaining. That gave the Eagles a 21-20 lead, which would have held…. except Matt Bryant hit a 62-yard field goal as time expired to give Tampa Bay the win. Philadelphia won the total yards battle 506-196, marking just the fourth time a team gained over 500 yards, allowed fewer than 200 yards, and still lost.
2) Bobby Bell vs. Charley Johnson
Johnson played the bulk of his career in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals, while Bell was an AFL superstar who helped the Chiefs win Super Bowl IV. Johnson was traded to the Oilers before the 1970 season began, and had a mediocre season at age 32 with Houston. In November in Kansas City, the Oilers trailed 14-9 in the fourth quarter when Bell iced the game with a pick six. Houston drafted Dan Pastorini third overall in 1971, and after he outplayed the veteran, the Oilers sent Johnson to Denver in 1972.
That put Johnson and Bell in the same division, setting the stage for the next two picks six. In 1974, after throwing a interception that was returned for a touchdown earlier in the game, Bell scored a 61-yard interception return in the third quarter to give the Chiefs a ten-point lead (Kansas City held on to win, 24-21). Two years later, in the 2nd quarter against the Broncos, a 34-year-old Bell picked up the final interception of his career and raced 28 yards for a score. Neither team passed for 100 yards that day, but the Broncos came back and won thanks to two second half rushing scores by Jon Keyworth.
The start of the ’67 was not good for the defending champion Packers, or for their star quarterback, the defending NFL (and Super Bowl) MVP. Starr threw nine interceptions and no touchdowns in the first two games of the year, but a stifling defense kept things close enough for Starr to lead late-game drives to pull out a 1-0-1 record. On opening day against the Lions, Barney picked off a first-quarter pass and returned it 24 yards for a score. Detroit got out to a 17-0 lead, but the Packers managed to pull out a 17-17 tie. The star of the game was probably running back Elijah Pitts, who rushed 7 times for 1 yard. That’s not a typo: in addition to the one yard, Pitts rushed for both Packers touchdowns, and caught an 84-yard pass to set up the game-tying field goal in the final minutes.
Three years later, Detroit returned to Lambeau Field for opening day, but the Lions didn’t allow any comebacks this time. Holding on to a 16-0 lead in the third quarter, Barney helped shut the door with a 40-yard pick six; the Lions ultimately won, 40-0. The rematch that season came in the season finale, and produced another Detroit shutout. Barney returned a Starr pass 49 yards for the final score of the game, giving Detroit a 20-0 victory. The 10-4 Lions then lost 5-0 to the Cowboys in the playoffs, while the glory days were over for Green Bay. The Packers finished 6-8 in what was Starr’s last full season as a starter.
So while there is a three-way tie at three, there are at least 53 instances where a defender scored exactly two pick sixes against the same quarterback. Using the same methodology from the original post, we can only estimate who threw certain picks six from prior to 1999. That brings in another 17 potential pairings where a defender scored on a pair of interception returns against the same quarterback. The table below presents the full list of 70, with the final column indicating whether we can easily confirm from one or both of the boxscores who threw the relevant pick six.