Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw a career-high five interceptions against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. For the Bills, it was the most interceptions for their defense in a single game since a six-pick performance against Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in 2009.
Depending on your allegiances, you may think Flacco had an abominable performance or that the Bills defense had a stellar one.
As usual in football, though, the truth is most likely somewhere in between the two extremes, with enough blame and credit to go around for everyone to have their share.
How much of that is blame on Flacco? How much is credit to the Bills defense? Was their success a result of their own talent, excellent film study and/or schematic genius by defensive coordinator Mike Pettine?
Let's look at each of the five interceptions by the Bills defense and try to find a rhyme or reason for each one as we search for the answer to those questions.
No. 1: Sniffed Out
Situation: First quarter, 5:37 remaining, 3rd-and-7, ball on the Baltimore 23-yard line
The Bills lined up in their nickel defense, rushing four men and playing Cover 2 on the back end with man coverage underneath and at cornerback.
Flacco's pass was intended for wide receiver Tandon Doss, who was running a 10-yard out route from the slot. With wide receiver Torrey Williams running the fade route at the bottom of the screen, the window was supposed to be wide open toward the sideline.
Cornerback Aaron Williams (circled in blue) eventually intercepted the pass, but Doss was the target. How did Williams intercept a pass that wasn't intended for his man?
Williams passed off Smith to safety Jim Leonhard once the receiver got five to seven yards into his route. Williams then turned his attention to Doss' out route, which was being run right at him.
"The corner fell off. I didn't see him at all," Flacco said on Sunday, via BaltimoreRavens.com.
Whether he recognized the play, took a gamble, or simply disguised his coverage and baited Flacco into the throw is not known. In any case, he made a great read on the oncoming throw, squatting on the out route and putting himself in perfect position to intercept the pass.
Credit: Williams' play recognition allowed him to get in position for this pick, fooling Flacco into thinking this throw would be open.
Blame: Flacco, for telegraphing the throw and making a bad read on the cornerback.
No. 2: Get Tipsy
Situation: Second quarter, 8:21 remaining, 1st-and-20, ball on the Baltimore 20-yard line
When a pass is popped up in the air, you can almost hear the offense hold its collective breath as the defenders search for the ball in the air and try to make a play on the ball for the interception.
That's exactly what happened on Flacco's second interception, this one coming thanks to cornerback Nickell Robey (circled in blue) and Leonhard (circled in red). The Bills were in Cover 1 with three defenders in short zones while lined up in their 4-2-5 nickel defense against the Ravens' 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers).
Flacco wanted to throw the curl route over the middle to tight end Ed Dickson (circled in yellow).
He fit the pass into the tight window and gave Dickson an opportunity to make the catch with Robey trailing behind him, but the ball bounced off his hands and up into the air.
Leonhard, who was keeping his eye on the quarterback the whole time in zone coverage, made a play on the ball, leaping into the air in front of Dickson and intercepting the pass.
Credit: Leonhard, for his heads-up play on the tipped pass.
Blame: Dickson needs to corral this pass, which hit him square in the hands. He now has six drops on the season.
Situation: Third quarter, 10:34 remaining, 3rd-and-11, ball on the Buffalo 19-yard line
When you're throwing for the back of the end zone, it's always better to miss long than short. It's hard to deliver an accurate deep throw with defenders bearing down from both directions for a big hit, though.
The Ravens came out in an empty set with four wide receivers and one tight end. The Bills responded with a 3-2-6 dime package. Robey came off the defense's right and the offense's left on a corner blitz. With no running back in the backfield to pick him up, he came unblocked at Flacco.
Linebacker Jerry Hughes also shed his block by stunting from the middle of the line to the edge, allowing him to get almost a free release off the line.
Flacco was still able to get the pass away and even stepped into it slightly, but he was somewhat flatfooted when he released the pass.
The combination of Robey and Hughes coming at Flacco prevented him from getting everything he wanted on the throw, and it floated up in the air a bit too long, allowing Williams to make a magnificent diving play on the ball.
"I had a one-on-one with Torrey in the back of the end zone. I was getting hit, didn't make a good enough throw," Flacco admitted after the game.
Credit: Mike Pettine, for calling the corner blitz in response to the empty set.
Credit: Williams, for once again making a great read and great play on the ball.
No. 4: Are You Blind?
Situation: Third quarter, 5:01 remaining, 1st-and-10, ball on the Buffalo 46-yard line
It was absolutely stunning to watch Flacco make this throw, but he doesn't deserve all the blame for the interception.
The Bills played zone coverage on the back end with a four-man rush up front. The Ravens came out in the 11 personnel grouping (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) and had rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown (circled in yellow) run a crossing pattern opposite Doss.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso (circled in blue) dropped into a short zone and kept his eyes on Flacco the whole time. He hardly even moved. All he had to do was step in front of the pass and put his hands out.
"I didn’t see that guy at all," Flacco said of his fourth interception. "I thought Marlon was going to come underneath and I didn’t see that guy at all."
Flacco might want to get his eyes examined.
Credit: Alonso, for staying disciplined in zone coverage.
Blame: Flacco, for staring down his read.
Blame: Brown, for not running the right route—if indeed he was supposed to step in front of Doss and not behind him.
No. 5: OK, That Was Filthy
Situation: Fourth quarter, 1:04 remaining, 3rd-and-8, ball on the Buffalo 48-yard line
Kiko Alonso was a playmaker at Oregon, finishing his career with six interceptions. His awareness in coverage paid off twice for the Bills on Sunday.
The Ravens once again came out with the 11 personnel grouping. The Bills responded with a 4-2-5 nickel package to account for the three-receiver set. As usual, the Bills were mostly in man coverage with some zone over the middle and deep.
Alonso wasn't actually the defender in coverage, though; that would be safety Da'Norris Searcy, who read the play correctly and broke on the ball to break up the pass.
Flacco thought he could fit this pass into tight coverage, and being a Super Bowl winning quarterback, it's hard to blame him for having that kind of confidence in himself.
But once again, the ball was tipped and up for grabs.
That's when Alonso swooped in, cape and all, to make the game-winning play on the interception. He was able to keep his fingers underneath the ball as he went to the ground, and the play was upheld after review.
"We were just trying to make a play," Flacco said. "I was just trying to have Dallas come across the safety's face and stick one in there and keep the chains moving. They made a nice play, nice catch."
Credit: Searcy, for reading the play and getting in between the ball and the receiver.
Credit: Alonso, for a magnificent play on the ball in the air.
Part of this was poor execution by the Ravens, but the Bills deserve a lot of credit for this performance.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine drew up a doozie of a game plan, coming with 24 blitzes and creating 22 total pressures to help them on their way to five interceptions.
The back seven did a fantastic job of staying disciplined, reading the quarterback and making plays on the ball.
Even aside from the five interceptions, holding Flacco to two touchdown passes and 6.9 yards per attempt is something to be proud of.
They are capable of performances like this, because they have a lot of talented players on defense.
Alonso may be only a rookie, but he is quickly developing into one of the better cover linebackers in the league. He already has four interceptions, and according to Pro Football Focus' evaluation system (subscription required), he grades out as the top linebacker in coverage through Week 4.
How about a huge round of applause for Aaron Williams too?
He was much maligned in his first two years as a cornerback, allowing over a 120 passer rating on throws into his coverage, but not only has he stepped up in his new role at safety, he has also moved back to cornerback as a result of several injuries at the position and has stepped up his game in his former role as well. On the season, he has allowed just 11 completions on 20 throws into his coverage according to Pro Football Focus.
Their defense only figures to get better once they get healthier: safety Jairus Byrd (plantar fasciitis) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (wrist) have both missed the entire season so far, and defensive end Mario Williams (ankle) is battling through injuries once again as well.
Pettine's disruptive scheme—and a few other very talented players—will be there waiting for them when they return.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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