The impact of interception rate

Chris Trotman

The impact of interception rate on winning and how it has enabled the Ravens to achieve the success they've had.

In the first installment of this, I started making a statistical case for why the Ravens might find the best Return on investment in the 1st round by selecting a receiver or defensive back. We know the Ravens are a BPA drafting team and rightfully so.  That strategy works.  This is not to suggest who they should draft but rather to relate what statistics enable teams to win and how the Ravens have fared in these.  In other words, if you could choose what you were going to be exceptional at, what would it be?

We know with statistical certainty that nothing correlates to winning like Points and Turnovers.  Unfortunately, those are broad statistics that don’t tell you much about what element of the game that it’s ideal to be strong in.

But some smart people have found that within those categories, nothing correlates better than Pass Efficiency (offensive and defensive), which was the subject of Part I.  This corroborates common wisdom nowadays – you pass to take the lead, and you play good pass defense to maintain it.  This is how the Ravens defeated elite competition in 2012 to take the crown.  Flacco threw for 14, 21, 21, and 21 points through the air.  The pass defense meanwhile was not its shutdown self of years past, but it was good enough to limit opposing QBs to 0, 21, 7, and 7 points through the air.  That split is awfully good against playoff teams fighting for their season.

A related stat that also correlates exceptionally well with winning falls under both the Points and Turnovers categories:  Interception Rate.  The ability to avoid interceptions on offense and create them on defense is a critical statistic.  Some stat people think it’s the most important play in sports. The number of interceptions is not as useful because its affected by whether teams throw at you or not or how often the QB throws.  So the rate (INTs divided by pass attempts) is more meaningful.

The Ravens efficiency in this stat backs it up.  Here are their historical rates on Offense (playoff teams in purple):

O-int-rate_medium

The top 3 years correlate with Joe Flacco being given sizeable receiver help in the form of Boldin, Pitta, and T. Smith. Their offensive lines weren’t even that special in those years so we can’t even put it all on having a stud line giving him all day to throw.  In the 2012 playoffs especially, Joe turned up his game and put in a 0 % INT Rate.  Consequently, we didn’t make the game-changing turnovers that cost us our season like our four opponents did.  The aforementioned receivers came up with big-time plays for their quarterback.  That's what teams do.  Only a fool should suggest that a QB has to do it all by himself with no namers at wideout.

And Defense tells a story, too:

D-int-rate_medium

If you want to hear a crazy stat: in the playoffs, the 2000 Ravens held opposing QBs to 0 Touchdowns and 10 Interceptions.  That is just ridiculous.  The run defense was the strength of that team but its pass defense might be the reason they won it all.

The 2003 Ravens had a similarly bad passing offense behind Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright – but they played elite pass defense, intercepted the ball a ton, and made the playoffs too.  In that playoff game, they picked Steve McNair off three times which is probably why it was even close. Jamal Lewis was a 2,000 yard rusher but, like Adrian Peterson in the 2012 Wild Card, elite rushers can be shut down and rendered irrelevant - you need to be capable of passing and stopping the pass, and better yet, producing a superior interception rate.

Few games demonstrate that like the 2011 AFC Divisional Playoff.

A single interception from Flacco, or one less interception from the defense, and that playoff game might have a different outcome.  Flacco took heat for his play in that game but he was on point all things considered.  Houston had him under siege, wrecking the O-line at every turn shutting Rice completely down.  Its not even a ball-game if Houston doesn't pull off the fourth down stop but they did.  Joe was sacked 5 times and hurried who knows how many more.  His ability to make excellent touch throws, like the toss to Boldin, and get a little help from his receivers, like Lee Evans' one-handed catch (of all people) made the difference in the game.  A lesser QB and lesser receivers would have made the critical mistake that cost them.

Yates, who in all fairness was a rookie, was outdueled by the Ravens pass defense which led to critical, drive killing interceptions.  The 2011 team hadn't produced many interceptions (11) in the regular season but in the playoffs they turned that up big-time.  Baltimore followed this game by intercepting Brady twice in the AFC Championship.  Its often forgotten that Brady threw zero touchdowns on an otherwise terrible day for him that ended his streak of 49 consecutive games with a passing touchdown (but for some reason only the regular season counts for official streaks).  These two games earned Lardarius Webb a $50 million contract almost single-handedly.

The long and short of it is Interception Rate is pretty important - when Richard Sherman says the best defensive backs produce picks, I'm inclined to agree.  Its nice to make pass defenses, like Revis, but interceptions win ball games, as evidenced by the NFC Championship.  Pass rush and offensive lines play a part in producing interceptions of course, but they can be mitigated.  A good QB can help mitigate a strong pass rush or weak offensive line by getting the ball out quickly – something that Drew Brees has done for a long time, for example.  It'll be interesting to see if the Kubiak WCO scheme helps get the ball out faster than we did under Air Coryell.

Historically, Joe Flacco has avoided interceptions at a fantastic rate, but 2013 showed that we need real long-term talent at receiver to help keep that rate down.  Both Flacco and his offensive line, deserve some blame for 2013’s interceptions, too but the fact is, the job is much harder with backup quality receivers who can’t catch, 37 year olds who need six seconds to get open on a dig route, and flat out fail plays like this one.  A tackle would certainly be welcomed, like Taylor Lewan, but I think this is the type of draft that taking a Receiver just makes more sense if given the choice between evenly rated prospects, if they do go offense, because of the sheer WR talent in it.

The Secondary is arguably the area where we’d see even more immediate return on investment though.  The 2013 Ravens compounded their offensive troubles by accounting for very few interceptions on defense, (although week 17 they came up big with four to keep that game competitive).  Part of that is losing an elite ball hawk (Reed) and starting two strong safeties not known mainly for their interception ability.  But the loss of Corey Graham, a guy with great ball skills, has exacerbated the problem in 2014.  They have the pass rush - now they need more playmakers in the back end.

The Ravens have and always will be a BPA drafting team and rightly so.  But rushing attacks don't establish a lead and run defenses don't protect them.  Passing does and in this particular draft, part of me hopes that the eventual BPA is a guy who directly contributes to that.

In part III, we’ll look at the impact of the run game and fumble rates, and the Ravens production in these categories.

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