There are a lot of exciting plays in American football that occur on both ends of the field. When it comes to defensive plays, none change the momentum of a game quite like a “pick 6”. It’s a play we don’t see often, but it certainly gets us off our feet when it happens.
So, what is a pick 6 in football?
A pick 6 occurs when the defensive team returns an interception for a touchdown. Since the defense becomes the offense immediately after a turnover, the player that caught the interception has the chance to score a touchdown. Pick 6s don’t happen often but they have the power to alter games.
There’s a lot that needs to go on before a pick 6 happens, which is why it’s so rare in today’s game. If you love American football and want to learn more about the pick 6 — including why they call it a pick 6, how to increase your chances of getting one, and some of the best players to ever earn them — continue reading.
Difference Between an Interception and Pick 6
As we mentioned above, two things need to transpire before a pick 6 can happen in an American football game. The first thing on that list is an interception. Without it, a pick 6 is impossible and won’t ever happen in a football game.
The second thing on the list is a touchdown. Without it, a pick 6 is considered an interception.
An interception occurs when a defender catches a forward pass/ball thrown by the quarterback (QB). It’s one of the many ways the defensive team can force a turnover. Interceptions are frustrating for the offense because the ball is intended for a player on their team.
After an interception, the defensive player that caught the ball has an opportunity to run it back for a touchdown. If they’re tackled before that happens, then their team takes over possession and gets a fresh set of downs.
If they make it in the end zone without being tackled or fumbling the ball, they score a touchdown and earn six points.
Anytime an interception is returned for a touchdown, it’s called a pick six. While not all interceptions end in a pick six, every pick six must start with an interception. The only difference between the two is a pick six involves a touchdown.
Keep in mind, the team intercepting the football gets the ball on offense after the player who intercepts the ball is tackled. The team who intercepted the pass still has an opportunity to score, but it has to come on the offensive side of the ball.
Why Do They Call It a Pick Six?
Anyone new to the game of American football won’t know the proper slang and lingo used every day in practice and games. If you were wondering where the term ‘pick 6’ comes from, you’ll be shocked to learn it’s pretty simple.
The first half of the word — pick — is slang for an interception. We use the word to say “the cornerback just picked off the quarterback” or “the quarterback just threw a pick with 3 minutes left in the game.”
The second half of the word — 6 — represents the number of points awarded to the team that scores a touchdown after intercepting the ball.
It’s the same number of points awarded for scoring a touchdown, whether it be a rushing, passing, kick return or fumble recovery touchdown.
Remember, there are two things for a pick six to occur on a play – an interception and a touchdown. If you ever get confused about where the term ‘pick six’ comes from, just bring your mind back to the interception (pick) and a touchdown (6).
Some of you are probably wondering why it’s not called a ‘pick 7’ since most touchdowns end in 7 points. While that’s true, touchdowns are only worth six points, while extra points are worth one additional point.
Since extra points don’t happen concurrently with interceptions, that’s why interceptions returned for a touchdown are called pick sixes.
How Does a Pick Six Affect the Game?
A pick six in football is a game-changing play. It doesn’t matter if the team that gets the pick six is winning or losing, it’s a chance to flip the momentum of the game and start taking control of the tempo.
It’s fair to say that any touchdown is a momentous part of the game, but it’s the way a pick six is obtained that makes it so special. It’s a dagger in the opposing team’s heart and is difficult to come back from because there’s a level of psychology involved.
A pick six does much more than put six points (probably seven) on the board. When the opposing team sets up on offense the next drive out, they’re much more rattled than they were before. The QB is liable to over-think his decisions, which can be disastrous for his team.
This fear that’s now instilled in the QB is one of the most beneficial things a defense can obtain throughout an American football game. It changes the whole dynamic of the game and puts the QB at a higher risk of making another mistake.
It’s a large reason why the ability to bounce back after a bad play is one of the most sought-after traits in a QB.
Who Generally Gets a Pick 6?
A pick 6 is rewarded to both the defense and offense. Generally, the QB will be awarded the ‘pick 6’ while the defender will be awarded an ‘interception return touchdown.’ They both mean the same thing, but the terms are used to distinguish the side of the ball.
On the defensive side of the ball, there are certain players on the field that are more prone to earn a pick 6 (interception return touchdown). For the most part, cornerbacks and safeties — also known as defensive backs — are the players you’ll see get a pick 6 most often.
The NFL saw a total of 36 interceptions returned for a touchdown throughout the 2019 season. Of those 36, 27 of them came from a cornerback or safety. Outside of that, seven came from a linebacker and two came from a defensive end.
To show just how rare they are, only three players in the 2019 season had more than one interception returned for a touchdown and Marcus Peters incredibly led the way with three.
No player in the 2018 season had more than two, although there were a total of 45 throughout the season.
How to Increase the Chance of Getting a Pick 6
If you’re a defensive player and wonder how to increase your chances of getting a pick 6 on any given play, there are six major things you’ll need — good hands, defensive IQ, blocking from teammates, speed, ability to break tackles, and vision.
Let’s take a closer look at each one:
- Hands – you need to have good hands if you want to properly secure an interception.
- IQ – good defensive IQ is required to read the play and put yourself in a position to make the interception.
- Blocking – once the pass is intercepted, your teammates need to be ready to block the opposing team without committing a penalty.
- Vision – ball carrier vision is required to weave through the defense and avoid getting tackled. The goal is to run into the end zone untouched.
- Speed – speed is what gives you the separation needed to run through the opposing offense.
- Break Tackles – in case you are met with resistance, knowing how to break a tackle increases the likelihood you make it to the end zone.
As for the QB, five major traits help you avoid allowing the defense to get a pick 6 on you — decision-making, throwing accuracy, chemistry with receivers, speed, and tackling. Let’s take a closer look at those:
- Decision-Making – making good decisions is one of the most important traits needed for a QB. When good decisions are made, interceptions are limited.
- Accuracy – being able to pass the ball exactly where the receiver needs it helps limit interceptions and turns potential bad plays into good plays.
- Chemistry – interceptions happen often when the QB and receiver aren’t on the same page. Limit your interceptions and you’ll limit the number of pick 6s you give up.
- Speed – if an interception does occur, the QB becomes a defender and needs to help stop the player who originally intercepted the ball.
- Tackling – speed helps you catch up to the defender, but you also need to know how to tackle them, otherwise the player with the ball will run right over you.
Whether you’re a QB trying to avoid a pick 6 or a defender trying to get an interception return touchdown, it takes a massive amount of practice to achieve your desired result.
Continue hitting the practice field and work on getting a little bit better each day.
All-Time Pick 6 Leaders in the NFL
Like we saw with Marcus Peters in 2019, some players are better at getting interception return touchdowns than others. Over history, some players have even made a habit out of it.
Of the top-ten all-time leaders in interceptions returned for a touchdown, only one of them still plays today — Aqib Talib. He ranks fourth all-time with 10 career interceptions returned for a touchdown. Let’s take a look at the rest of the top-ten:
- Rod Woodson – 12
- Darren Sharper – 11
- Charles Woodson – 11
- Aqib Talib – 10
- Ken Houston – 9
- Deion Sanders – 9
- Aeneas Williams – 9
- Eric Allen – 8
- Ronde Barber – 8
- Charles Tillman – 8
As far as QBs go, there are several that have made a habit out of throwing a pick 6 in the NFL. Jameis Winston recently set a record in 2019 by throwing seven pick 6s in the season. Looking at career numbers, these are the QBs who have given up the most pick 6s:
- Brett Favre – 31
- Dan Marino – 29
- Joe Namath – 28
- Drew Brees – 27
- Peyton Manning – 27
- Phillip Rivers – 24
- Carson Palmer – 23
- Vinny Testaverde – 23
- Eli Manning – 22
- Norm Snead – 22
Like we mentioned earlier, the mark of a good QB is being able to bounce back after throwing a pick 6. The QBs above threw them often, but you’ll notice that they’re also some of the best QBs the NFL has ever seen.
Don’t be discouraged if you or your favorite QB throws a pick 6 because it’s bound to happen from time-to-time.