Where’s the best spot on the field to complete passes… and not get picked off?
In analytics circles, the middle of the field is generally considered to be the best place to throw if you want your receiver to catch the football. But a quarterback’s job goes way beyond completing passes. A QB also has to read the defense, avoid pressure and sacks, prevent interceptions and pick up first downs.
Turns out, not only is the middle of the field the best place for a receiver to catch a pass, it’s also the best place for an opponent to intercept a ball, too.
The following plots look at the likelihood of a completion (left plot) and an interception (right plot) based on the pass distance (in yards) and direction (left, middle, right). Regular season games from 2010 through Week 13 of 2019 are included (bin sizes with smaller samples are dropped).
In both plots, lighter colored areas correspond to more completions or more interceptions. Both middle columns feature lighter colors when compared to the columns on the left and right. That implies that throwing down the middle yields higher rates of completions, but it also yields higher rates of interceptions.
More specifically, a pass thrown 20 yards down the middle of the field has about the same completion percentage as one thrown 10 yards towards either sideline. But those same passes thrown down the middle of the field are also about four times as likely to be picked off. Alternatively, nearly one in five passes are picked off when the ball is thrown 30 yards down the middle of the field, which is about three times the rate of interceptions on the sideline.
As more years of tracking data are observed, we’ll be able to more precisely identify the best parts of the field to complete passes (Ex: Where your favorite team likes to throw the ball), as opposed to relying on play-by-play categorizations. For now, know that when a pass is thrown to the middle of the field, it’s less likely to be incomplete.