The Steelers were losing by 11 points to the Patriots in the fourth quarter of their game on Sunday. That’s pretty close to a death sentence because the Patriots are great and don’t make a habit of blowing two-score leads in the fourth quarter.
But the Steelers’ method of trying to come back took a really dumb turn with just more than nine minutes left. Facing a fourth-and-3 at New England’s 36-yard line with 9:05 on the clock, Mike Tomlin sent out kicker Chris Boswell to try a 54-yard field goal.
Boswell missed it wide-right. It wasn’t close, and New England took over with an even nine minutes left to play. The Steelers deserved exactly this fate, because kicking was nonsense.
1. It was fourth-and-3. The Steelers should get 3 yards on any given play.
There are no certainties, but Pittsburgh has a great offense.
The Steelers were sluggish on Sunday but still picked up 5.4 yards per play – not as good as their usual 6, but enough that they were at least moving.
It makes sense that the Steelers would be able to get 3 yards on a fourth down, because they’ve got an elite running back in Le’Veon Bell, an elite receiver in Antonio Brown, and a couple of other useful weapons. They get yards, usually.
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t playing, but Landry Jones had completed most of his passes. He finished at 6 yards per throw. He was likelier than not to pick up 3 yards, either by giving the ball to Bell or throwing short to Brown or someone else. Jones wasn’t good, and maybe he’d have failed. But not trying was weak.
2. Kicking clearly wasn’t working, for anyone.
Boswell, who’s normally quite good, had already missed a 42-yarder in the first half. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski had missed an extra point. It’s been a windy day in Pittsburgh, and Boswell was trying this 54-yarder into Heinz Field’s open end, at the intersection of a couple of rivers.
It’s been easier to kick there in recent years, but that end of Heinz Field developed a pretty quick reputation when the stadium opened for being an excruciating place to kick field goals. The Steelers put some seats in a few years ago, and most of the fuss about kicking there has died down.
But nobody was kicking well on Sunday, and it seemed pretty negligent to ask Boswell to make a 54-yarder about an hour after he’d missed from 42 on the stadium’s closed end. It was a big request.
3. There would’ve been almost no benefit to actually making the kick.
With the win probability calculator at Pro-Football-Reference, we can figure that the Steelers’ chances to win, when they had that fourth-and-3 with 9:05 left and an 11-point deficit, were 1.8 percent. They were likely going to (and did) lose either way.
Making a field goal and then kicking off for a touchback would’ve bumped those odds to about 6.3 percent. Not much of a help, even though it might’ve felt momentarily comforting to be within a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
But converting, then scoring a touchdown with eight minutes left, kicking a PAT, and kicking off for the same touchback, trailing by four? That would’ve given Pittsburgh about a 21 percent chance, according to the calculator. That’s a real difference. (I assumed it would take 60 more seconds to score a touchdown, which was arbitrary. You can play around with other times if you’d like, but it’s all similar.)
But Tomlin, in asking Boswell to kick, foreclosed that increased chance. He tried a field goal that seemed doomed to miss and would have barely helped even if it had worked.
It’s a great example of an NFL coach being too conservative and hurting his team by trying what looks like, but really isn’t, the safe move.