Ryan Fitzpatrick read the play perfectly, but he made a poor decision and a worse throw.
The Bills already trailed the 49ers 24-3 in the third quarter, but Brad Smith had finally given the offense a spark with a 35-yard run out of the “Wildcat.” On 1st-and-10 from the 49ers’ 20-yard line, Fitzpatrick went for it all.
WR Donald Jones had single coverage with CB Chris Culliver. The safety on that side, Dashon Goldson had crept toward the line of scrimmage, and help over the top from Donte Whitner would have been too late. A properly thrown deep ball to the endzone would have been the Bills’ first touchdown.
Instead, throwing into the wind, Fitzpatrick badly underthrew Jones, and Culliver picked it off.
The play brings up a problem Fitzpatrick has had with his throws for the past two seasons, and that’s his arm strength and the deep ball. What can make his inaccuracy more maddening for Bills fans is how efficient he is on short, quick throws.
According to Pro Football Focus, Fitzpatrick has an accuracy percentage of 72.0 percent when he holds on to the ball for 2.5 seconds or less. When he holds it for 2.6 seconds or more, the percentage drops to 56.7.
Last season’s loss to the Giants illustrated clearly some struggles Fitzpatrick has going deep down the sideline. Late in the third quarter, he went for Stevie Johnson down the left sideline. Johnson had to slow up in his tracks on the underthrown ball, and Giants CB Corey Webster picked it off. In a tie game in the fourth quarter, Fitzpatrick went after Webster again down the left sideline, this time near the endzone. The play looked like a replica of the earlier pick, as Webster snared the underthrown pass.
In 2011, Fitzpatrick completed 13-of-57 passes thrown over 21 yards, or 22.8 percent of his passes, for two scores and four picks, according to Stats LLC. His completion percentage on throws between 21 and 30 yards was 26.7, ranked 26th in the league.
Things haven’t been easier for Fitzpatrick this season. He has completed 4-of-17 passes thrown over 21 yards for two scores and three picks. In the past two seasons combined, Fitzpatrick has completed just 1-of-19 throws longer than 30 yards with two interceptions.
Accuracy issues on the deep ball certainly do not only plague Fitzpatrick. His completion percentage on the throws from 21-30 yards last season was better than Joe Flacco, Matt Cassel, Mark Sanchez and Matt Ryan. When the Bills struggle like they have and Fitzpatrick turns the ball over, though, his stats get put under the spotlight.
The Bills drafted WR T.J. Graham, a speedster, to help stretch defenses, but Fitzpatrick’s arm strength doesn’t necessarily allow the Bills to do that. Devin McCourty picked off a deep pass down the right sideline intended for Graham in Week Four. The read was correct, too, as Graham beat McCourty and the Patriots had one safety deep who would not have gotten there in time. Another underthrown ball, another pick.
The issues with the underperforming defense have been magnified in the past two weeks, and rightfully so. No matter how accurate Fitzpatrick is on his deep ball, the Bills won’t win games when the defense plays like it has. But giving opponents short fields and not sustaining drives are not helping the cause.
Fitzpatrick has a pair of electric running backs to throw to and one of the best route runners in the game in Johnson. Ideally, he will hit Graham on some deep balls to keep defenses honest, but the Bills’ offense remains at its best when Fitzpatrick holds on to the football for a shorter amount of time and throws shorter passes.