What a week for fourth downs! Teams went for it on fourth down with five yards to go or less 18 times in Week 8, and they picked up the conversion on 15 of those plays. Before Sunday, the league had been converting 52.3 percent of those plays, which was narrowly down from the 53.8 percent conversion rate on fourth-and-5 or less from 2010 to 2012. The only meaningful failure on fourth down all week came on Week 8’s final play, with the Seahawks blitzing Kellen Clemens into an overthrow on fourth-and-goal to claim a tight victory. Those final two minutes? They weren’t, um … they won’t go in the coaching textbook, that’s for sure. Overall, this was a week when coaches went aggressive and were rewarded for their choices. It’s a more pleasant TYFNC when things work that way.
And let’s keep it pleasant by thanking the league’s 32 taskmasters to start …
The Three Best Calls of Week 8
3. Bill Belichick manipulates the wind in Foxborough. That Belichick guy still knows what he’s doing. On Sunday, in the middle of a comeback victory over the Dolphins, Belichick showed he was paying attention with a well-planned pair of moves that used the weather to his team’s advantage. With the wind approaching 20 mph in Foxborough on Sunday, Belichick’s offense had the gusts at their backs in the third quarter. When a Stevan Ridley run picked up 10 yards to set up third-and-10 from the Miami 30-yard line, Belichick thought on his feet. He realized a 48-yard field goal into the wind would be too dangerous to attempt, meaning he had to kick the field goal in the third quarter. With that in mind, he immediately took a timeout to stop the clock, making it extremely likely the Patriots would either convert on third down and continue their drive or kick a field goal to the favorable end of the field. (It helps when you have a quarterback you trust to avoid taking a sack or throwing the ball well short of the sticks.) Tom Brady threw an incomplete pass on third down, but Stephen Gostkowski had no trouble pushing a 48-yard field goal through with 13 seconds left in the quarter, giving the Patriots a 20-17 lead.
On New England’s next drive, Belichick flipped that logic onto its head. Now traveling into the wind with a three-point lead, the Patriots faced a third-and-5 from the Miami 35-yard line. That’s normally a passing spot for Brady & Co.; since Brady returned from his torn ACL in 2009, the Patriots had faced third-and-5 69 times and thrown the ball 64 times. (The league throws 87 percent of the time in that down-and-distance.) This time, the Patriots called for a run play. Why? Because they knew in advance they would be going for it on fourth down with a failure! When you know you have two plays to pick up the five yards you need, it opens up your playbook and creates new possibilities. Given that the Dolphins were almost surely expecting a pass play given New England’s tendencies, it made all the sense in the world to run the ball against a soft front on third down. This was one that didn’t work at first — Brandon Bolden gained only one yard — but the Patriots then went for it on fourth down and converted on a Brady scramble. That was pretty nifty.
2. Denver goes for it twice after falling behind 21-7 and creates a pair of touchdowns. Most of the numbers that come up in this piece every week are averages; they’re considerations for what an average team does or should do in a given situation against an average defense. That makes them imperfect (as opposed to useless). It’s just as important to take the numbers and apply them to the teams and situation at hand. That’s often used as an argument when people want to default to the conservative side of decision-making. Rarely is it used as a justification to be more aggressive.
If any team should be more aggressive on offense, shouldn’t it be the Denver Broncos when they’re playing the dismal defense of Washington? John Fox’s conservativeness might have cost the Broncos a victory in Indianapolis a week ago, so it was disheartening to see them punt on fourth-and-3 from the Washington 43-yard line in the second quarter. Once they went down 21-7 after a pair of unseemly turnovers, though, the Broncos sprung into action in fourth-down situations. It was the right move both times.
First, Denver handed the ball to Knowshon Moreno on a fourth-and-2 from the Washington 20-yard line. That ended up as a five-yard pickup, and the Broncos scored three plays later. The next drive was more harrowing. Denver had first-and-goal from the 2 and picked up one yard over its first three plays before the quarter ran out, giving them a fourth-and-goal from the Washington 1-yard line. Denver lined up to go for it in the shotgun before Washington called timeout, which raises one concern that affects the numbers: Washington was likely less worried about a quarterback sneak than they would otherwise have been because they were facing a gimpy Peyton Manning. That hurts, because the quarterback sneak is the most effective play a team can run from a yard out. When they returned, the Broncos lined up Manning under center and had him throw the ball to an open Joel Dreessen for a one-yard score. Denver never looked back.
1. The Browns go for it down 20-10 in the third quarter. For a guy who worked underneath a pre-enlightenment Ron Rivera in Carolina the past couple of years, I really like Rob Chudzinski’s aggressiveness in short yardage, especially given how his team can struggle to move the football at times. Sunday was no exception. His Browns were up against the league’s best defense, the Kansas City Chiefs, with Jason Campbell under center. Campbell had a decent day, but there’s no way you can count on your offense to consistently move the ball and create scoring opportunities.
So it makes sense that Chudzinski decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Kansas City 19-yard line on the opening possession of the second half in a 10-point game. As color commentator Dan Fouts shouted about how the Browns needed to keep the momentum and take the points by kicking, the Browns converted with a handoff to Willis McGahee for two yards. On the next play, Campbell hit running back Fozzy Whittaker on a swing pass for a 17-yard touchdown, bringing the Browns within three points. Neither team scored again until the Chiefs kicked a field goal with 22 seconds remaining. (That itself was a decision about which I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or another.) The Browns only made it to the Kansas City side of the field on one more possession the rest of the way. This ended up being Chudzinski’s only chance at a touchdown, and he was right to take it. Good for him.
There are so many fourth-down successes to talk about! I can’t even get to them all! Quickly …
The 49ers picked up fourth-and-1 on their opening drive from Jacksonville’s 21-yard line with Frank Gore because, well, going for it on fourth down doesn’t just have to be a David strategy … Joe Philbin’s Dolphins were stuck in no-man’s-land on the New England 38-yard line with fourth-and-1 in the second quarter, but against a Patriots team that is without Vince Wilfork or Tommy Kelly in the middle, going for it was the right call; that Daniel Thomas ripped off a 15-yard gain is just a bonus … the Jaguars went for it no fewer than five times, picking up three of them in a futile effort to challenge San Francisco … the slant from Matthew Stafford to Megatron on fourth-and-goal from the 2 in the first quarter ended up giving the Lions a late chance to win … the Packers converted fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-3 in no-man’s-land against the Vikings because they’re one of the best offenses in the league and should basically never be punting on fourth-and-short … and add the Saints to that group, with Pierre Thomas running for 12 yards on an early fourth-and-2 carry from the Buffalo 37-yard line … oh, and Rivera continued his reign of terror when Mike Tolbert picked up yet another fourth-and-1 for the Panthers. Can’t stop. Won’t stop.
Besides the aforementioned end to the Monday Night Football game, the other big stop of the week came with the Jets denying the Bengals a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line down 14-0 in the first half. The Bengals were so thrown by the momentum swing that they proceeded to win by 40 points.
Are teams going for it more in short yardage near the goal line? On fourth down inside the 2-yard line in situations when the two combatants are separated by 14 points or fewer, teams have gone for it on 19 of their 34 opportunities this year, 55.8 percent of the time. From 2010 to 2012, teams went for it in those same situations just 39.1 percent of the time. So while it’s obviously a small sample, it’s certainly true that teams have been more aggressive near the goal line this year.
Oh, and one more thing. I don’t want to name names, but let’s just look at the numbers and see how teams have done at converting for scores in that scenario. Remember that, even without considering the field position you “gain” when you fail to convert on fourth down, the breakeven rate for going for it inside the 2-yard line is 43 percent. In 2013, teams have converted for a new set of downs or a touchdown on only 38.9 percent of those attempts, which is a pretty disappointing figure. It’s also in an awfully small sample. From 1999 to 2012, the full expanses of the Pro-Football-Reference.com play index, those aggressive teams have produced a touchdown on 53.3 percent of their attempts, adding in a conversion for a first down on another 1.8 percent of tries. It’s the right move in theory, but it has also been the right move in practice.
It’s always the teams with the injured backs, man. Why are the Bills, who have already lost C.J. Spiller to injuries and have a hampered Fred Jackson manning the load, insistent on running a meaningless handoff to Tashard Choice from their own 20-yard line with 30 seconds left in the first half?
It was ironic that Doug Marrone called Choice’s number, because the running back is the patron saint of this category. It wasn’t quite a halftime draw, but in Week 1 of the 2010 season, Choice’s Cowboys were down 3-0 to Washington when the Cowboys lined up for a first-and-20 play on their own 35-yard line with four seconds left. It was a classic situation for a kneeldown, but the Cowboys decided to call a pass play. Tony Romo checked down to Choice, who promptly fumbled, with Washington returning the fumble for what was the decisive touchdown in a 13-7 final. Listen to the radio announcers after that play. “Dallas should have just killed the clock!” Easy to say after the play.
I always mention the possibility of an offensive player getting hurt on a meaningless draw, but it’s also true that a defensive player can suffer an injury there, too. I don’t want to be so cynical as to suggest that offenses should run draw plays at the end of the first half knowing they could create an advantage by injuring a member of the opposition, but that’s what happened with the Jets, who ran another draw with Bilal Powell from their own 34-yard line with nine seconds left. Bengals safety Taylor Mays suffered a shoulder injury on the play that forced him out for the entire second half and already has him out for Thursday’s game against the Dolphins. That’s really disappointing.
The Tiniest of Challenges
Did a memo go out from the NFL Coaches Association promising the head honchos a bonus if they threw their challenge flag this weekend? There were more questionable challenges this weekend than I can ever recall; I ended up with no fewer than six coaches who threw their flag on plays with little reward. A couple were your basic “We can’t possibly get an inch!” challenges, with Marrone failing on a plane break challenge on second down and Andy Reid succeeding on a third-down challenge that would have preceded a fourth-and-an-inch attempt in no-man’s-land against the Browns. In each case, the challenge ended up inconsequential; the Bills scored on the next play, and the Chiefs just ended up missing a long field goal anyway.
There were two more obvious low-reward challenges, both of which proved to be winners. Bruce Arians got into the act in Arizona by challenging that a 27-yard punt return to midfield in the first quarter was actually out of bounds after 13 yards. He was right, and it actually ended up helping; the Falcons eventually drove to the Arizona 36-yard line before punting. Jim Schwartz, meanwhile, challenged for all of five yards on a second-and-6 pass from Romo on the Dallas 42-yard line. The play was reversed and the Cowboys threw the ball away on third down before punting. In either of these cases, of course, the team could have easily done as well without picking up the relatively tiny amount of field position they gained from the challenge flag.
Fox, distressingly, doesn’t appear to really give any consideration to how he uses his challenge flag. After winning worst call of Week 6 for a useless challenge and failing to challenge a would-be Eric Decker touchdown catch that was ruled incomplete in Week 7, Fox challenged that a 10-yard completion to Santana Moss deep inside Washington territory in the first quarter that gave RG3 & Co. a first down was incomplete. It would be one thing if the call were obviously wrong, since an overturn would have forced Washington to punt, but the decision was upheld upon review, costing Fox a timeout and a challenge with 50 minutes to go.
In the repeat offenders book, nobody tops Mike Tomlin for wasting challenges. It was Tomlin who challenged for 14 yards on the opening kickoff of a playoff game against the Ravens in 2010; after a freak fumble he desperately tried to challenge away, he was then out of challenges by the end of the first quarter. Amazingly, even though the league now automatically reviews turnovers and scoring plays, Tomlin managed to pull the same move again on Sunday against the Raiders.
The meaningless challenge came in the first quarter, when Ben Roethlisberger found Heath Miller on first down on his own 38-yard line for 10 yards and a new set of downs, only for the pass to be ruled incomplete. He still had two more chances to convert and was picking up only 10 yards, but Tomlin challenged. He won, but with the win came the opportunity cost of having used his first challenge. Then, seven minutes into the second quarter, a bouncing Steelers punt appeared to touch a Raiders player, only for the referees to rule on the field that a Steelers player touched the punt first, downing it. Since the play didn’t result in a turnover, Tomlin had to challenge to try to reverse the call, but the decision was upheld. Again, Tomlin found himself out of challenges with 34 minutes of challengeable time left in the game. You just can’t let that happen to yourself, especially with so much time left to go. Low-reward challenges in the first half seem tempting, but the risk-reward opportunity just isn’t there. Even more distressing, I don’t think guys like Tomlin or Fox are even considering the value of the reward.
The Three Worst Calls of Week 3
3. The Vikings give up … and then don’t give up. I could forgive the Vikings for taking the sure points and wanting the game to be over the past couple of weeks. I just can’t reconcile the way they treat different situations in concert with one another. Minnesota was getting blown out by the Packers on Sunday night when Toby Gerhart ran through the Packers defense and over teammate Greg Jennings for a 13-yard touchdown run, making the score 41-23, pending the extra point with 4:48 to go.
Minnesota chose to kick the extra point to make it a 17-point game, which makes no sense at all; there’s virtually no likelihood you’ll have the opportunity to produce three scoring possessions in five minutes. Your only way back into the game, given the time you have left, is to try to reduce the number of possessions needed to tie or win the game. And the only way to do that is to go for two and succeed, which would make the contest a two-possession game with the Vikings then down 16 points. That’s the only path by which the Vikings could possibly sniff a comeback: two-pointer to make it 41-25, deep kickoff, defensive stop, touchdown, two-point conversion (making it 41-33 and a one-score game), onside kick, touchdown, two-point conversion. If you fail at any point, the game’s over, but the game is over if you need three drives, anyway.
Obviously, the Vikings didn’t have a big chance of winning. But if the team didn’t really care all that much about the two-point call, why did Minnesota then attempt an onside kick on the next play? It’s one thing if you want to give up and basically let the game be over as a meaningful contest, but the Vikings kept insisting they were still in serious business negotiations. They were not.
2. Pittsburgh runs the slant. This might be on Roethlisberger as opposed to offensive coordinator Todd Haley, but I don’t understand this one at all. The Steelers were down 21-3 and facing a third-and-1 on the Oakland 17-yard line with 17 seconds remaining in the first half. They had just used their final timeout. They split everybody out and Roethlisberger … throws a three-yard quick slant to Felix Jones over the middle of the field. The ball goes through Jones’s hands and is nearly intercepted.
What on earth is the point of that play or that throw? Pittsburgh already has a makeable field goal from 34 yards; the five yards or so they’ll pick up from a checkdown don’t materially improve Shaun Suisham’s chances of hitting the field goal. (He admittedly did miss from 34 anyway.) Furthermore, if Jones catches the pass and picks up those yards, the clock is going to continue running after he is tackled (which, best-case scenario, would have happened with 14 seconds left); the Steelers would have had to sprint back to the line and spike the ball without any chance of running an additional play to the end zone. The throw to Jones was quick, without seemingly any real attempt by Roethlisberger to look downfield. Does giving up the possibility of a play to the end zone justify throwing a checkdown that will keep the clock running? This play was absolutely impenetrable.
1. Mike Tomlin loses the right to challenge plays way too early again. Tomlin’s Steelers finally got onto the winning side of the ledger in recent weeks, picking up two victories after Tomlin had banned his players from playing pool or other board games as a result of their awful start. Now that their winning streak has been broken, what does Tomlin ban now? If he really wanted to help the team, Tomlin would ban himself from throwing the challenge flag.