Coaches often choose the conservative path–even if it is the incorrect one based on game results–because it leads to less public criticism and outcry. Dirk Koetter went that route last night at the end of the first half, when he settled for a field goal down 23-7, at the Pittsburgh 3, with just over a minute remaining.
But it was a big strategic error, and I’m going to go a little to the left wing and explain all the reasons why that is the case.
When it comes to decisions on fourth down in the NFL, it isn’t just 3 points versus 0 versus 7. It’s also about the likely response, the field position, and where the other team will have the ball.
In this case, the various elements all point to going for it at the 3-yard line.
- The Bucs were down by 16 at the time, near the half. Teams trailing, especially by multiple scores, should be higher variance and take more chances.
- A field goal is almost certain from that distance, but it will lead to a kickoff, where Pittsburgh will likely take over at the 25 (or get a return).
- Both teams had three timeouts left. This is a benefit to Pittsburgh if they have decent field position, with plenty of time to score. The Bucs also having all three remaining is a deterrent to Pittsburgh being aggressive, on the other hand, if the ball is near the goal line.
- These are both offensive passing teams and Pittsburgh had a higher likelihood of scoring from better field position than a typical team.
Let’s start with the field position difference of giving the Steelers the ball at the 3 or at the 25, and the impact that has in late game situations (this obviously assumes a failed attempt on fourth down for now).
Using drive finder information at pro-football-reference.com, I examined all drives in the last decade starting inside the 5-yard line with between 30 seconds and 2 minutes left, and also all drives starting between the 20 and 30 yard line (excluding kneeldowns).
The chances of the opposing team scoring if they start inside the 5 are dramatically reduced by that roughly 20 yards, so much so that your net points, even if you assume not getting a fourth down conversion, are basically identical by kicking the field goal as just handing the opponent the ball near the goal line.
Of the 74 drives starting inside the 5, only 9 resulted in an opponent score before halftime (4 touchdowns, 3 field goals). Almost as many resulted in a turnover (7), and 27 of them resulted in a punt. That means that the average points scored per drive was just 0.6, and the defensive team got the ball back by a punt or turnover on a 46% of the drives at the end of a half.
Meanwhile, starting between the 20 and 30-yard lines, the average points per drive was +1.3, slightly more than double the chances of giving up points. Teams punted or turned it over 40% of the drives, and field position when they did so was worse for the other team, compared to the situations where they were pinned.
That twenty yard difference is massive because of the opponent mentality. In this case, Tampa had all their timeouts, making their chances of getting the ball back with a chance of score much better. In going through the situations in drive database, the team that had the opponent pinned ended up averaging a net +2.0 points if they forced a punt or turnover before the end of the half.
As for the chances from the 3-yard line, it happens infrequently that teams go for it and the fourth down data is thin, so Dirk Koetter is not alone. On 3rd and goal from the 3, teams score 40% of the time (162 of 403 since 2008). That makes sense and is in line with what I would expect considering teams convert about half the time on two-point conversions (from the 2).
In this case, what we saw was that Tampa got the field goal, but Pittsburgh then aggressively went down the field, used the sideline and their timeouts, and scored a dagger touchdown in the final seconds of the half to go up 30-10.
As it turns out, they never scored again, Tampa Bay made it a 30-27 game, but could not get the final score.
If Tampa goes for it and scores, and the rest of the half plays out, then Tampa is still down 30-14. If Tampa goes for it and fails, then Pittsburgh doesn’t play it the same way knowing the Bucs are at the goal line and Tampa has all their timeouts. Maybe they get a stop because Pittsburgh tries to make them burn timeouts. Maybe they still give up a field goal. It’s very unlikely that Pittsburgh is at their 1-yard line with a chance to run a short pass for a touchdown.
There will be a lot of plays (the interceptions, the final drive) that people will point to, but the decision at the end of the half was a factor as well, even if it is largely ignored.