What is an Interceptable Pass? Let Ryan Fitzpatrick Explain
Since writing the quarterback catalogue at the start of the year, I’ve often been asked what an interceptable pass is. I don’t have a simple, clear definition because, as the book says, the very nature of what I’m doing is based in subjectivity. It’s not something we try to hide or present in such a way that is misleading, it’s something we embraced.
After writing about Ryan Fitzpatrick’s touchdowns earlier this week, I wanted to show why that alone wasn’t the reason Fitzpatrick is a problem. Being effective in a simplistic offense is fine if you take care of the ball. Fitzpatrick doesn’t take care of the ball, it took Carson Palmer playing through an injury into the playoffs for Fitzpatrick to finish second in Interceptable Passes during the 2015 season.
As such, I decided to solve both problems with one article by going through all 31 of Fitzpatrick’s interceptable passes from last season.
During the second quarter of Week 1, Fitzpatrick threw one of the worst interceptions you will see. He had time and space in the pocket because the Jets kept multiple extra blockers in to protect him and the Browns only rushed four players after the quarterback. Despite having this time and space, Fitzpatrick forces a throw into triple coverage, trying to find Brandon Marshall.
Fitzpatrick likely never saw Tashaun Gipson, misreading the coverage completely and throwing the ball directly to the safety. Gipson fumbled the ball back to the Jets so this play actually gained yards for the offense, setting them up at the Browns’ 9-yard line.
A few minutes later in the same quarterback, Fitzpatrick threw just as bad a pass. He should have given the defense a chance at running back a touchdown but the linebacker couldn’t catch the ball. He should have caught the ball because Fitzpatrick stared down his tight end from the beginning of the play. The ball arrived in a spot where he could have comfortably caught it if he had used both hands, instead he just tipped it away with one.
Once again, there was no reason for Fitzpatrick to get rid of the ball so quickly. He predetermined this pass for no good reason, simply a terrible decision.
Against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2, Fitzpatrick is intercepted by Mike Adams midway through the second quarter. He makes two major mistakes on this play, both are mental errors. He has time and space in the pocket when he drops back once again. He stares down Brandon Marshall running down the left sideline from the beginning of the play. Fitzpatrick predetermined that he was throwing the ball to Marshall even though Vontae Davis is on top of the route from the beginning of the play.
This ball should never be thrown to Marshall unless it’s going to be thrown to his backshoulder with velocity. Fitzpatrick tries to lead his receiver downfield, through Davis, with a slow, lofted pass.
Davis doesn’t intercept the pass, he can only tip it into the air as he reaches out for it. Marshall is nowhere near where the ball lands. Instead, it’s safety Mike Adams who is in the right spot at the right time. Adams tends to be in the right spot at the right time, but he was on this occasion because of Fitzpatrick. At the beginning of the play, Adams drops deep on the same hashmark as Fitzpatrick drop backs on. That is the hashmark to the shorter side of the field, Adams is slow, but he can cover the narrower side of the field to get under a slow pass from Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick never understood the coverage on this play, forcing a pass into Vontae Davis and leading Mike Adams to the football.
When charting Interceptable Passes, I also chart interceptions that aren’t the quarterback’s fault. The obvious example of this play is when the quarterback throws an accurate pass that hits the receiver’s hands and is then caught by a defender. Those plays only qualify when the pass is an accurate one though, if the quarterback’s throw is off target and the receiver adjusts to tip it into the air, it can still qualify as interceptable. This throw against the Colts is a good example.
Fitzpatrick should have a simple completion by throwing the ball in front of his running back underneath. Instead, his pass is high and too far behind. If this was just a slight adjustment, for example if the back only had to cradle the ball against his hip, it would still be considered accurate for the purposes of this measurement. But it’s not.
Instead, the pass is way behind its intended receiver and bounces into the hands of the linebacker who proceeds to drop the ball.
Smart quarterbacks make mistakes, but they learn from them. Fitzpatrick has been repeating his mistakes for the best part of the last decade. Despite still being in the same quarter as his interception to Mike Adams, Fitzpatrick made almost the exact same mistake with 50 seconds left in the half. He predetermined his throw to Brandon Marshall, throwing a duck into coverage for the safety to break on.
Once again, the defender couldn’t maintain control of the ball.
A week later, Fitzpatrick repeated another mistake to throw two intereceptable passes. On both plays, Fitzpatrick attempts to find Devin Smith down the left sideline. He needs to put the ball in front of Smith and preferably on his outside shoulder. Smith has gotten past Rowe on both occasions but is forced to adjust to passes that are underthrown and arrive too far infield. Smith prevents the first interception because cornerback Eric Rowe is slow to turn and find the football.
Rowe rectified his previous error on the second attempt.
Staring down receivers and leading safeties to the ball is a major problem for Fitzpatrick. This is one of the worst interceptions you’ll see a quarterback throw, it just wasn’t caught.
This is a similar play to the interceptable pass against the Colts when Fitzpatrick missed his running back underneath. His pass was touched by his intended receiver, but only because he leapt into the air and fully extended. The ball hit his fingers and the arriving Byron Maxwell from behind couldn’t react to it quickly enough to pull it in. It was a wild pass from Fitzpatrick, technically a catchable one but most definitely not an accurate one.
Finding Devin Smith was a major problem for Fitzpatrick last year. Smith is a deep threat, he looked like he had the potential to be a great one at Ohio State. He will excel with a quarterback who can throw deep, especially with one who can push the ball to both sidelines. On this play, Fitzpatrick tries to hit a window on the far side of the field. He is woefully off target, so much so that the ball hits the hands of the safety who should intercept the ball.
Fitzpatrick tries to find Devin Smith on this play. Smith sprawls out to try and catch the ball, but it passes him and falls just out of the reach of the defensive back waiting for it. The defensive back could have had a chance at the interception had he dived for the ball quicker.
Placement is a major issue for Fitzpatrick. Brandon Marshall was regularly able to erase the impact of Fitzpatrick’s poor ball placement but there were plenty of times where Fitzpatrick’s throws were so poor that he had no shot. The above play is a good example. This should be a relatively simple interception, but the Dolphins player drops the ball.
Over the first four games of the season, Fitzpatrick threw 13 Interceptable Passes on 145 attempts. Of the 35 quarterbacks charted in the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue 2016, 10 threw at least 240 passes and had 13 or fewer interceptable passes. It was the incompetence of the Colts, Eagles and Dolphins’ defensive backs that prevented him from being benched as only four of those 13 passes were actually caught with two more interceptions coming at the hands of teammates.
Bashaud Breeland is able to pull in this interception because Fitzpatrick’s pass needs to go high and outside instead of low and inside.
There are times when a quarterback will attack defensive backs whose eyes are looking at the receiver. On those plays, throwing the ball to a spot where the defensive back could get it doesn’t mean it’s a bad throw. It could be that the quarterback is giving his receiver a chance to work back through the ball. That depends on the situation though. On this play, there was no logical reason to throw the ball behind Marshall.
Marshall had beaten both defensive backs down the seam. He had an easy touchdown with a pass that led him into the wide open space downfield. Fitzpatrick’s pass hits the back of one of the trailing defenders, nowhere near Marshall. Had either defender been looking back for the ball, he would have had an easy interception.
A recurring issue for Fitzpatrick is not understanding his own skill set. He repeatedly attempts to make throws that he simply can’t make. After escaping the pocket on this play, he tries to throw a deep pass to his receiver running towards the sideline. His pass is nowhere near where it needs to be and the safety can’t control the low pass.
For the second time this season, Fitzpatrick could/should have thrown a pick six to an underneath linebacker. The linebacker dropped the ball…again.
It’s not always about the defensive back’s ability to catch the ball. There are times when the quarterback puts the ball in a spot where only the defensive back can catch it, but how quickly the defender reads and reacts to the ball determines if the ball is caught or not. These are the plays where the subjectivity is at its highest. Gilmore is slow to flip his hips and find the football on this play.
Had he shown more fluidity and comfort he could have run underneath or at least dived for this ball. Gilmore is a very good cornerback, but he is also a bigger, heavier cornerback who isn’t best built to take advantage of these loose throws.
Situation has to be taken into account on interceptable passes. A quarterback forcing the ball in a desperate situation when he has no other option isn’t like a quarterback forcing the ball when his team is leading late in the fourth quarter. There are 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter of this game. The Jets need to score a touchdown. Had Fitzpatrick been intercepted on a Hail Mary attempt, this wouldn’t have been an interceptable pass.
He wasn’t intercepted on a Hail Mary though. The Jets ran a play that was designed to attack the sideline. Fitzpatrick’s pass was late because of his processing ability in the pocket and underthrown because of his arm strength. He didn’t have to force this ball either, when he released it there were 20 seconds left on the clock and he had a route to run into the flat.
Interceptable Passes that are marked off for situation have to be 100 percent a last resort option when the quarterback didn’t miss an opportunity to make a smart play. This play didn’t meet that standard.
Defensive backs aren’t subject to the same standards as receivers. Because it’s the quarterback we are measuring, we want to be as punitive as we can be. Every player is treated with the same standard. If the safety was a receiver on this play, it would be considered an inaccurate pass because the receiver had to dive for the ball. Because he is a defensive back, he only needs to have a realistic chance at catching the ball for it to qualify as an interceptable pass.
Fitzpatrick isn’t a precision passer. He can’t throw receivers open or fit the ball into tight windows. This is (obviously) a major problem.
Predetermined. Stared down. Lead the safety to the ball.
The cornerback on this play is playing the slant from the very start. When Fitzpatrick begins his throwing motion, the defender is on Eric Decker’s inside shoulder. He should throw the ball behind Decker or at least try and fit it into his stomach. Instead, Fitzpatrick shows no awareness throwing the ball ahead of Decker and straight to the hands of the defender.
Decker beats Brent Grimes on this play. Fitzpatrick even uses a pump fake to acknowledge that he knows he is running free down the sideline. Despite using that pump fake to make the cornerback bite, Fitzpatrick then inexplicably throws the ball directly to Grimes.
Any pass that travels further than 10 yards downfield is an adventure for Fitzpatrick. His deep ball accuracy was amongst the worst in the league last year.
It’s astonishing how often Fitzpatrick’s interceptable passes were dropped last year. Only 33.3 percent of his interceptable passes were caught. Just four quarterbacks had a lower rate. It should also be noted that Fitzpatrick’s interception against the Browns that turned into a fumble that the Jets recovered is included in that 33.3 percent.
The Cowboys came away with one…
…but the Bills dropped another potential pick six, the third on the year for Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick’s luck did turn during the final week of the season. He had three interceptions that weren’t his fault, though he only had himself to blame for this awful decision when threatening the endzone.
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