Steelers Made the “Play not to Lose Call” When it Mattered the Most Not To

A lot of strange things and tough decisions, that outcome wise didn’t go the Pittsburgh Steelers’ way, combined to give the Baltimore Ravens what was ultimately an unlikely win in their week four Thursday Night Matchup.

The strange come from behind victory kept the Ravens from losing a key divisional game and dropping to 0-4 (0-2 in the division, and with both losses to the two division front runners), and thus putting them in a hole that barring a remarkable turnaround would have all but ended their season a mere four games in.

And there was some criticism of the Steeler’s tough decisions in overtime, some unwarranted, some worth considering.

But the real mistake by Pittsburgh is the one that went on somewhat under the radar, and which came at a critical moment for them to correctly finish out the game. In that instance, the team made the strategy decision almost every team in the league would have made, and routinely makes; a decision that increased their opponent’s chances of winning the game, and decreased their own. (In fact, it was not as bad as many, and simply because of the long distance the Steelers faced – see below – and the extra 8 yards to the opponents if the decision fails, may have occassionally been decided differently; whereas ten yards further in, where it’s just as ill advised, the decision’s almost always made the same way – even usually in shorter yardage decisions where it increasingly becomes an even bigger mistake, sometimes to the point of practically handing one’s opponent a very good chance in a game that up until the decision is made, from a probability standpoint, they don’t remotely have.)

With Steelers backup quarterback Michael Vick at the helm, and, along with their defense playing reasonably well, Pittsburgh built up to a 20-7 lead early in the third quarter.

But the Ravens came back, adding a touchdown and then field goal to pull to 20-17. Then after an exchange of possessions, the Steelers took over at their own 43 yard line with 4:43 left in the game.

A nice long drive would finish it off. Pittsburgh pulled off the first half of such a drive, but then found themselves facing a fourth down at the Ravens 31 yard line, with 5 yards to go for a first.

2:29, and one Baltimore timeout remained. (As of this moment, NFL’s Gamecenter incorrectly has a timeout attributed to Pittsburgh at 2:32, and Baltimore’s second rather than third timeout atttributed to them at 1:51 of regulation, even though Baltimore, still trailing Pittsburgh who had the ball, could do nothing to stop the clock on the ensuing play, and it ticked all the way down to 1:06)

At the Ravens 31, facing fourth and five, a field goal would put the Steelers up by 6 points; with Baltimore still having a timeout left, and about 2:24 left on the clock after the field goal. This is more than enough time for a two minute drill to drive and win the game.

Needing a touchdown is more difficult than needing a field goal. But, with enough time, the difference, in an end game situation where the trailing team is both playing with desperation and in effect has four plays rather than the customary “three” to advance the ball (with the fourth typically used to either punt or kick a field goal, both of which are essentially worthless when trailing by 4-7 in two minute drill situations), isn’t all that great. Particularly when a field goal, down by 3, only gets the trailing team a tie – which they will then lose in overtime about half of the time anyway – while a touchdown as the last score of the game when trailing by 6 gets them the win every time.

The other aspect to the field goal here is that a 49 yard attempt isn’t all that easy. The last few years, as kickers have gotten better and better, kicks are around 75% from the 48 yard line. This is good, but still means a quarter of the time the field goal will be missed anyway. And thus the other team will get the ball without even those 3 points added – and get it at the literal spot of the kick, so about 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

49 is another yard above 48. Less trivial than another yard is the fact that Heinz Field where the Steelers play, is a typicaly difficult place to kick field goals from. And for this game there was again a cross breeze, if somewhat light, and the Steelers were on their third field goal kicker of the season: Josh Scobee, who had also missed two field goals in the Steelers opening night loss at New England, from 44 and 46 yards.

But more important here is the fact that kicking the field goal is literally handing the Ravens the legitimate opportunity to win the game outright – and doing so voluntarily.

But on the other hand, actually kicking the field goal doesn’t increase the Steelers chances very much, and in fact probably only does so somewhat marginally. And it certainly doesn’t enough to offset the value of the opportunity (its value times the chances of achieving it relative to not doing so and the harm therein versus the field goal try), being given up by doing so.

First of all, again, there’s the missed field goal issue and ball placement after the miss, an extra 8 yards out to the Ravens 39.

This is only about 25 yards away from excellent kicker Justin Tucker’s realistic range to be more likely to tie the game than not. And it’s only 61 yards from a winning touchdown, with a full 2:25 and a timeout left – a touchdown the Ravens may still play for or stumble into given the large amount of time, even though they only “need” a field goal.

And again, making the field goal is not that big of an advantage versus simply staying up by 3 points. (On the other hand, if there was 1:06 left to play, it’s almost exactly the opposite – and precisely this scenario also wound up coming into play in this game a few moments later.)

If the Steelers don’t have much better to do, sure, take the field goal. (Most of the time.)

But they do have something better to do. Much better, and at least reasonable enough odds of achieving it. That is, play to win the game outright, without Baltimore even getting any reasonable chance in the first place.

That means getting a first down, and effectively running out most or all of the relevant remaining portion of the game.

A first down doesn’t guarantee the win, but it’s close; whereas if the Steelers don’t make it they’re not in that much worse shape than if they had simply kicked the field goal, as we’ll see a little more below.

If Pittsburgh makes the fourth down conversion try and doesn’t go out of bounds on the play – fairly easy to control when it’s important to so control (unless going out of bounds assures them of making the first, which is more important here) – Baltimore has to take their last timeout.

Then Pittsburgh’s ensuing first down will run the game clock down to the two minute warning. Second and third downs will run it down to about 30-32 seconds before any fourth down play is run. And then from the 26 yard line or very likely better (i.e., making their 4th and 5 from the 31 by getting the absolute minimum 5 yards, then getting 0 total yards on three more runs, still puts Pittsburgh at the 26), they can try a field goal to if successful make it a 6 point game at that point – with the Ravens needing a Hail Mary (huge kickoff – very hard when the covering team doesn’t have to maximize yardage, but just cover gaps to prevent a fluke huge return, which will burn up half the time left, plus then a long or Hail Mary type pass), or double Hail Mary type of situation.

And if they miss the field goal, with now about 25-27 seconds left and no timeouts, the chances of the Ravens winning are still negligible.

If Pittsburgh instead makes the first down but somehow goes out of bounds (either by big mistake, or the play somehow unfolds where it becomes a choice between going out of bounds and picking up the first, or otherwise not making it), the Ravens are still very unlikely to win – what wound up bizarrely happening in this game aside.

The out of bounds – which again will be rare in the first place if the Steelers make the first down and are correctly aware of the key difference that extra forty seconds makes in the game situation (unlike the Giants in week one) – would stop the clock. In such a case the Ravens would use their last timeout after the Steelers ensuing first down, the two minute warning would stop the clock after second down, and the Steelers could take the clock down to about 1:15 before trying a reasonably easy field goal, unless they get another first down and can just take a knee to end the game.

If the Steelers make the fourth and 5 from the 31, they’ll be at the Ravens 26 or better, and then have 3 more plays to advance the ball, ideally a few yards each. (And if the clock was somehow stepped by an unavoidable out of bounds they should also play a little bit for the first down to then be able to simply take a knee, rather than just pure vanilla plays simply to run clock.)

Between picking up an average of 5-8 yards or so on any successful fourth down conversion try, and a few more yards (2-8) on three more run attempts, the Steelers would likely be trying a field goal from about the 18 or 19.

In essence, if the Steelers make the fourth down conversion try, they have to 1) somehow have gone out of bounds – easily avoidable – 2) they need to then miss a fairly easy field goal (unless they pick up another first down, which makes it all moot anyway), and then 3) the Ravens still need to drive in likely the last 70 seconds and make the field goal, and 4) then win in overtime.

Driving and making a field goal in 70 or so seconds is more than doable. But the chances of the Ravens winning if the Steelers convert are the chances of 1) Pittsburgh making the conversion but going out of bounds (low), 2) not making another first down (high, but it still lowers the overall odds a little more), 3) missing a fairly easy field goal (fairly low, but as this game reminded us, more than plausible), 4) driving to field goal range and making that field goal (reasonable), 5) then winning in overtime (50/50). All these things have to be accomplished, and multiplied together the odds are exceedingly low.

in essence, and part one of the two things that are key here, Pittsburgh doesn’t automatically win if they make the conversion and don’t go out of bounds. But they will win save for those rare, rare freak instances; and if they make the conversion and nevertheless do go out of bounds, they’re still very very likely to win.

The second key is that failing on the conversion attempt versus simply attempting the field goal, doesn’t really increase the Ravens chances too terribly, and more importantly, doesn’t in comparison to the critical fact that making the conversion – which is certainly reasonably doable – radically changes the game into what will in almost all cases be a win for Pittsburgh.

The problem is that getting stopped on such a conversion try – probably a little more likely than not with 5 yards to go – is looked at as if versus simply trying the field goal it’s some sort of huge loss; so the gigantic, almost game winning gains from making it, aren’t fully evaluated, or are somewhat overlooked or misassessed.

But again, it’s not: Trying the field goal, particulary with a kicker only available as Pittsburght’s third option because the other 3 teams in the league didn’t consider him among the 32 best, and a field with typical crosswinds, and from 49 yards, gives a decent shot at missing anyway.

But more importantly making the field goal forces Baltimore to play for the win; ensures that they have time left to do it; and voluntarily hands over the ball to them so that they have the opportunity to do it in the first place.

It’s better to be up by 6 than 3, generally. But it’s usually not that much of an improvement versus an opponent being down by 3 and playing for the tie – or at least not being forced to hurry enough to get to the end zone rather than field goal range, and to use fourth downs as field goal plays and not to keep a TD drive alive – and then still losing half the time (in overtime) anyway.

Also relevantly, but not all encompassing, making the field goal and kicking off also does get a little extra yardage for Pittsburgh’s defense versus geting stopped somewhere outside of the 26 yard line, and likely on average near the 31 yard line of scrimmage, ona failed conversion attempt.

Again, not meaningless,including that yardage, particularly when only talking about having to get it into field goal range to at least keep the game alive. So take the field goal here if there’s no better option. But the option to essentially win the game – make a simple five yards and stay in bounds on the play (with still very good odds even if they go out of bounds) – relative to what trying the field goal provides, and the reasonable chances of being able to make it, is of enormous value.

As it turned out, Scobee missed the field goal by a few inches to the left, in the direction the light Heinz breeze was blowing.

Then what happened was pretty unusual – particularly for Joe Flacco, who has gotten the Ravens to the playoffs (and then performed well in them) six of the seven seasons he’s been in the league, in part because if the game is on the line and he has a chance to win, he does more often than not.

And particularly when it’s critical, as this game was as much any game four of the season possibly can be. (Here was a rare miss by Flacco, and it allowed the Patriots to get to the Super Bowl last season. Another key miss is covered in that same link, where with the AFC Championship on the line against, once again, the Patriots Flacco lasered it in on a narrow tightrope into Lee Evans’ stomach, and an undrafted rookie free agent, much as in the last Super Bowl for the Patriots, made the key play of the game and saved their season.)

Still down 20-17, sitting a 0-3 and looking at 0-4 and yet another division and possible wild card rival game loss, and thus with their season on the line as much as it can be only four games in, the Ravens got to start out from their own 39, with 2:24 and one timeout remaining: plenty of time to play for the 61 yard TD drive win, which good teams will usually do in situations like this. (Notice Tom Brady and the Patriots almost always play for the win whenever possible, and also have Six Super Bowl appearances since 2001); and to use the field goal tie as backup.

Yet the Ravens got stopped, gaining a whopping total of negative 10 yards, on four plays. And with three incompletes and a sack that stopped the game clock for the exchange of possession, they got stopped so quickly that, with some more luck shortly to come, they got yet another reprieve in the game.

Here’s what happened: Pittsburgh took over at 2:04, a mere 20 seconds later, and after Baltimore used their last timeout at the 1:51 mark and before Pittsburgh’s third down, they took the game clock down to 1:06 before lining up for a 41 yard field goal attempt.

Once again, close, but no cigar: This kick, after veering at the last moment, also missed to the left by about a foot. And 41 yarders are usually made.

Baltimore then started from their own 31 with 61 seconds remaining; and with a few seconds left, they kicked a 42 yarder to send the game into overtime.

In overtime Baltimore also stopped Pittsburgh on two short fourth down conversion attempts by virtue of good defensive plays, and some would suggest iffy play calls. (Using Michael Vick on a designed run on fourth and two. And later, on a fourth and one from the 33 where a 51 yard field goal would have won the game outright, a pass play – Vick’s probably not the best QB to make that call with – and a long one but heavily angled for short yardage – which only increased the chance of error.)

After the second fourth down stop, Baltimore was able to drive, and won the game on a 52 yard field goal. (A yard more than the one that the Steelers wouldn’t take a few moments before, and, ironically, also a fourth and one. But the Ravens have a great kicker, the Steelers absolutely don’t, and their confidence in him was also probably particularly low at that point, so one can understand the difference in the two calls.)

The outcome of the game isn’t relevant to the original decision to try a 49 yard field goal from the 31 yard line and go up by 6 points with a little over two minutes remaining, rather than simply try to keep the ball and run the clock out or close to out and then (try) a fairly easy field goal.

And after knocking the Ravens backward on four plays after the missed field goal, the Steelers should have won anyway, but missed the easier 41 yard attempt as well. (Had the Steelers done that from a fourth down conversion failure and thus about 6-12 yards further in, the kick would have been good. It’s not relevant, but interesting to note.)

But the Steelers overall chances of winning the game, at the time they faced 4th and 4 from the Ravens 31 yard line, would have been higher had they simply tried to win. That is, make Baltimore both stop them and then drive for the win or tie and then win in overtime, rather than voluntarily hand Baltimore a good chance of winning the game, either by missing the field goal anyway, or making it and kicking off with plenty of time left for Baltimore to win.

Mike Tomlin is usually pretty good at these types of decisions relative to other head coaches. But he makes multiple mistakes too. And the fact is it’s far too much to ask of a head coach to be intuitively expert at these kinds of “secondary” yet important and improvable structural game logic and decision making skills that can improve outcome odds from better assessment alone, in addition to being the expert teachers, communicators, media liasons, organizers, managers, leaders and motivators that coaches simply need to be, and which most are extremely good at.

Making these kinds of decisions correctly also goes against almost all of the conventional thinking that dominates the league; And most such decisions are hidden, in that they tend to go largely unrecognized or widely (but not always) mis-assessed in the mainstream media when addressed, which as with teams and coaches tends to be far too conventionally routine as well as outcome oriented in assessing a strategic move, rather than exlusively focused on the conditions and facts that existed at the time of the decision.

Yet such assessments and decisions are a key part of the game, in that a team’s chances of winning can be improved simply from better strategic assessment; without additional skills, endurance, balance, flexibility and smaller muscle kinesthetic development, technique, tackling, execution and other practice (which as an aside I also think the CBA unprofessionally restricts too much), but the mind alone. (The same thing also applies to non game day decisions, but that’s another, broader topic area.)

Jacksonville, for you, I’m available. I know you guys need a lot of help. Even if your quarterback does suggest that “fans questioning play calling are like kindergartners questioning college students.”

Maybe, sometimes. But we’re all kindergartners. We just don’t know it.