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Analyzing every Joe Flacco interception this year

Flacco has had more downs than ups this year

Flacco has struggled to regain his Super form.

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.
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Super Bowl XLVII Preview

Before we get to my preview, I feel the need to point you to some excellent Super Bowl previews I saw this week:

The Ravens can stop the zone read, but at what cost?

In Colin Kaepernick’s nine starts, the 49ers have averaged 159 rushing yards per game on 4.9 yards per rush and have rushed for 14 touchdowns; at the same time, they’ve averaged 8.1 ANY/A through the air. That makes them close to unstoppable, much like the Seahawks when Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch were dominating defenses over that same stretch.

The Packers could not stop the Pistol offense.

The Packers chose to let Kaepernick beat them on the ground. He did.

For San Francisco, their dominance starts up front, and their offensive line needs only sustained success to rival what the lines of the ’90s Cowboys or ’00 Chiefs delivered. According to Pro Football Focus, left tackle Joe Staley is the best tackle in the league, while right tackle Anthony Davis is the second best run-blocking tackle in the league (behind only Staley). PFF ranks both Mike Iupati and Alex Boone as top-five guards in the league, and places both of them in the top three when it comes to run blocking. Center Jonathan Goodwin also ranks as an above-average center, and the 34-year-old veteran is more than capable of anchoring a line filled with Pro Bowl caliber players. As if that wasn’t enough, Vernon Davis is one of the top two-way tight ends in the league, while TE/H-Back/FB Delanie Walker and FB Bruce Miller provide excellent support in the run game.

Without any schematic advantage, the 49ers have enough talented beef up front to have a dominate running game. But add in what Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have been able to do with the Pistol formation and the zone read, and you have a running game that borders on unstoppable.

We saw that against the Packers, as Colin Kaepernick broke the single-game rushing record by a quarterback. The beauty of the zone read is that it gives the offense an extra blocker, an advantage the 49ers didn’t need. After the Packers were shredded by Kaepernick, the Falcons focused on containing the quarterback. Take a look at the photograph below, courtesy of Ben Muth of Football Outsiders.
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Flaccoing?

Flaccoing?

In September, I started a post by asking you to make this assumption:

Assume that it is within a quarterback’s control as to whether or not he throws a completed pass on any given pass attempt. However, if he throws an incomplete pass, then he has no control over whether or not that pass is intercepted.

If that assumption is true, that would mean all incomplete pass attempts could be labeled as “passes in play” for the defense to intercept. Therefore, a quarterback’s average number of “Picks On Passes In Play” (or POPIP) — that is, the number of interceptions per incomplete pass he throws — is out of his control.

After doing the legwork to test that assumption, I reached two conclusions. One, interception rate is just really random, and predicting it is a fool’s errand. Two, using a normalized INT rate — essentially replacing a quarterback’s number of interceptions per incomplete pass with the league average number of interceptions per incomplete pass — was a slightly better predictor of future INT rate than actual INT rate. It’s not a slam dunk, but there is some merit to using POPIP, because completion percentage, on average, is a better predictor of future INT rate than current INT rate.

So, why am I bringing this up today, at the start of Super Bowl week? Take a look at where Sunday’s starting quarterbacks ranked this year in POPIP (playoff statistics included, minimum 250 pass attempts):
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Lewis looks to cement his legacy

Lewis looks to cement his legacy.

Being a Super Bowl champion is a pretty nice bullet to place on your Hall of Fame resume. For players like Jerry Rice or Peyton Manning (or say, Steve Largent or Dan Marino), the failure to acquire a ring wouldn’t have prevented their induction; on the other hand, would Lynn Swann or Paul Hornung or a host of quarterbacks have made the HOF without a Super Bowl ring (or two, or three, or four?)

Just winning a Super Bowl guarantees nothing — Charles Haley and his five rings are on the outside looking in, as is Fuzzy Thurston, winner of six NFL titles. The borderline cases are the ones most helped or hurt by that Lombardi Trophy (or lack thereof) on the resume, and that class of players seems to be among the largest growing segment each year. So today, I’m going to take a look at how winning the Super Bowl could impact the legacies of certain Ravens.

Ray Lewis is a first ballot Hall of Famer regardless of what happens in Super Bowl XLVII, although his status as the game’s best inside linebacker of all-time might be boosted with a second Lombardi. The Ravens have been on a magical “Ride with Ray” and he’s been the face of a defense that’s turned from average in the regular season to excellent in the playoffs.

Ed Reed is another obvious Hall of Famer, even though unlike Lewis he was not a member of the 2000 Ravens teams that won the Super Bowl. Still, considering Troy Polamalu has appeared in three and won two of these games, Reed’s resume will look slightly less glamorous if he never is able to win a Super Bowl. And while it isn’t particularly relevant here, but I’ll just note that from 2005 to 2007, Bob Sanders made them a “Big Three” at the position, when Sanders won both a Super Bowl and a Defensive Player of the Year award. All three have battled injuries, showing just how dangerous the safety position can be in the NFL.
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Is Joe Flacco elite?

Just a guess, but I think that question will be asked quite a few times over the next couple of weeks. While the inanity of the discussion that usually follows that question is not something I wish to emulate, there’s no particular reason not to take an in-depth look at Flacco’s career. The table below shows Flacco’s performance in six key metrics — all relative to league average (1.00) — for each season of his career:

Flacco career

As you can see, with the exception of his great interception rate — which justifies its own post during this pre-Super Bowl period — Flacco’s career performance has been rather average. His touchdown rate, like those of many quarterbacks, has bounced up and down throughout his career. His sack rate was below average during his first three years, improved significantly in 2011, and landed right at the league average in 2012.

ELITE

That is an elite Fu Manchu.

In the three main statistics — Y/A, NY/A, and ANY/A — Flacco has consistently finished in a tight window around the league average. His ANY/A has been slightly better than his NY/A thanks to that lofty interception rate, but suffice it to say Joe Flacco is, and has been for years, a league average quarterback.

If we look at ESPN’s Total QBR, Flacco ranked 27th as a rookie in 2008, 15th in 2009, and 12th in 2010, signaling a young quarterback improving and on the rise. In 2011, he ranked 14th, perhaps signaling a leveling off, and then this past season, he finished 25th. The positive spin would be that he’s a league-average quarterback, and the negative one (at least prior to this post-season) would have been that he was regressing.

On the other hand, here is how Flacco has performed in the playoffs in each game, as measured by AY/A:

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13-time Pro Bowler

Will Lewis go out on top?

According to the SRS, this is as lopsided as championship games get. The Patriots are 12.8 points better than average while the Ravens have an SRS of just +2.9; therefore, you’d put New England as 13-point favorites at home (in reality, they are 8-point favorites). I’ve been a Ravens skeptic for a couple of months now, and never thought they were one of the best teams in the league.

In my week 11 power rankings, when Baltimore was 8-2, I wrote: “According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore has the best special teams since 1991 through 10 weeks. Schatz tweeted that Baltimore’s the 16th best team based on just offense and defense.”

A few days later the Ravens defeated the Chargers in the famous 4th-and-29 game, which certainly didn’t change my outlook on Baltimore. Then the Ravens tanked down the stretch, seemingly fulfilling their reputation as an average team. And let’s not forget: had Ben Roethlisberger stayed healthy, it’s possible the Ravens don’t even make the playoffs. Without the 13-10 ugly win over Byron Leftwich and the Steelers, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh would have finished 9-7 with the Steelers holding the tiebreaker. To be fair, the Ravens did not compete in a meaningless week 17 game, but the point is that the Ravens were barely above-average team during the season that got a few breaks along the way.
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Reviewing the Divisional Round of the Playoffs

The Best Weekend of the Year lived up to its reputation this weekend, as the divisional round of the playoffs gave us three outstanding games. Here is my reaction, with a disproportionate amount of time spent on the Denver-Baltimore game, because, well, if you saw it, you’d understand.

Baltimore 38, Denver 35

One of the best playoff games in NFL history, and an instant classic. This game could be analyzed for hours and there are countless talking points (Fox playing not to lose, Manning’s playoff failures, Ray Lewis’ retirement tour making at least one last stop, Tim Tebow anyone?) that will fill up the schedules of ESPN and talk radio for weeks. But let’s start with a big picture review of the game from the perspective of the team I expected to win the Super Bowl.

If you want to assign credit and blame to Denver, this is how I would rank the five Broncos units on Saturday, from best to worst.

1) Special teams. Sure, Matt Prater missed a long field goal, but Trindon Holliday’s two return touchdowns were a thing of beauty — especially for fans of excellent blocking. Holliday’s runs were more about textbook blocking by the return unit and poor coverage by the Ravens than Holliday himself, but in any event, the Broncos special teams had a great day. In fact, here is how Pro-Football-Reference broke down the game by unit in terms of Expected Points Added:
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I was on vacation last week, so I provided just a bare bones set of NFL playoff predictions. Technically, my picks went 4-0 on Wildcard Weekend, but that doesn’t count for much when you pick the favorite in every game. With a little more time on my hands, here’s an in-depth preview of Saturday’s games. Tomorrow I’ll be previewing Sunday’s action.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) (+9.5) at Denver Broncos (13-3), Saturday 4:30PM ET

Manning looks for to win another Super Bowl

Manning points to his glove dealer.

Most of the signs in this game point squarely in the favor of Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Baltimore has wildly underachieved on the road the last few seasons, and in Denver does not seem like the optimal place for that trend to reverse itself. From 2002 to 2010, Manning went 8-0 against the Ravens, including a 2-0 mark in playoff games. If you double his numbers in those games (to approximate a 16-game season), Manning would have thrown for 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions, while averaging 7.8 Y/A and 7.9 AY/A to go with a 65.6% completion rate and a 97.7 passer rating. Manning was similarly lethal in Denver’s win over the Ravens in Baltimore earlier this year.
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