One of the odd conundrums of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s career arc has been the erratic accuracy and success rate of his deep passes.
Known for having one of the strongest arms in the NFL, Flacco’s deep passing goes beyond arm strength. It incorporates ball placement and consistency with accuracy and timing. Can Flacco sling it as far as any quarterback in the NFL? Of course; just watch a 2012 Divisional Round pass to Jacoby Jones for that reference.
But Flacco’s deep passing has not been consistent. During the 2013 season, according to the advanced statistics website Pro Football Focus, Flacco ranked dead last among 21 qualifiers in the NFL in deep passing, which is categorized as all throws beyond 20 yards.
His deep passing stats included:
- One touchdown and eight interceptions
- 26.1 percent accuracy rate (includes accurate dropped passes)
Oof…only about one out of every four deep throws were successful.
I performed a more in-depth analysis of Flacco’s deep ball back in November 2013. I found that Flacco’s struggles come mostly from his own inaccuracy. Sure, the 2013 Ravens offensive line was horrid, but even when given ample time to set his feet, Flacco was often off the mark downfield.
Flip the page to 2014, and the story takes a 180 degree turn. According to Pro Football Focus, Flacco was fifth in the NFL in deep passing among 25 qualifying quarterbacks last season. His improved statistics on throws 20+ yards downfield include:
- 11 touchdowns and two interceptions
- 50 percent accuracy rate
With Steve Smith Sr. as the only notable deep threat addition between the two seasons, what changed so drastically for Flacco? Sure, improved offensive line play likely contributed to stabilized success over the duration of the season, but how else did Flacco improve?
Let’s take a look.
One of Flacco’s best assets was pure confidence in his arm and pre-snap reads.
Take a Week 9 play for example.
Prior to the snap, the lone deep safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers is Troy Polamalu, who has rolled toward Flacco’s left side. This leaves a true one-on-one chance down the right sideline for Torrey Smith.
The old adage about quarterbacks going through their progressions to find his best option does not apply here. This is a simple decision for Flacco, with no need to look elsewhere.
By the time Flacco has locked in on Smith and is ready to throw, Smith has not even begun to gain separation.
Flacco has enough trust in his decision, accuracy and receiver to make this throw without having a clear target area. He employs the method of throwing up the ball with two probable outcomes: a reception or an incompletion.
As a result of his arm strength, Flacco can place the ball where only his guy can go get it, making it an easy decision. On this play, the result is a touchdown.
In 2013, for inexplicable reasons, Flacco often looked worried and erratic in the pocket. Due to either a lack of confidence or other factors, Flacco failed to capitalize on many chances during the first season after his Super Bowl win.
But in 2014, Flacco remained confident in his arm and pre-snap decisions, resulting in plays like the Smith touchdown.
Along with his improved decision-making, Flacco’s was just more accurate in 2014.
Deep passes are not just the long 40-yard bombs downfield. A quality deep pass can come in many ways, especially for a quarterback with a strong arm like Flacco’s.
With such little time to throw, Flacco must quickly set his feet and release the ball before the pass rush closes in. The reduced time in the pocket forces Flacco to key in on Smith, who has a wall of Colts defenders around him.
With a safety over the top of Smith, Flacco’s only chance of completing the 20-yard throw is by squeezing it through defenders two and three with a low trajectory.
Given such a tight window to fit the ball through, Flacco must execute his accuracy and world class arm strength to perfection, which he has no trouble doing.
How often did Flacco do this in 2013? Hardly ever.
The perfect combination of confidence, accuracy, poise and arm strength led to prolonged success for Flacco on downfield throws in 2014. Last season could justifiably be considered Flacco’s best start-to-finish campaign of his career. He was certainly among the best in the league on deep throws, which contributed to that success.
With a new toy in Breshad Perriman to replace Smith, Flacco will have to dial long distance like he did in 2014, not 2013.
The Ravens offense could have a very successful 2015 campaign under new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman.
Flacco’s consistency will be key.