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Is Mike Tomlin's game management costing the Steelers in big games?

A mathematical look into the questionable decisions of Mike Tomlin, and the Pittsburgh Steelers' coaching staff, as they continue to deviate from 'optimal'.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Steeler's coaches playing scared?

A question I have often wondered myself when watching the Steelers play. During a 4th & short play, depending on one's position, what is the optimal play?

Well, to decide if it was optimal we need to look at fundamental football and how to win. To win the game one team must outscore it's opponents. The first half is essentially a game of blowing up the scoreboard, to create a large spread between your team and it's opponents. The second half, if everything goes as planned, is where we typically see deviation from first half GTO (Game optimal theory) and we attempt to implement game management strategies to secure the win.

During the Pittsburgh Steelers week 1 match, we saw 2 Field Goal attempts during the first half. Were they the correct play given the opponent and situation? Let's analyze the Steelers situation on the first field goal attempt. The Steelers are 4th & 12 from the opponents 25-yard line. Giving us a 44-yard field goal attempt. Josh Scobbe has had a professional NFL 40-49 yard FG conversion % of 71%. Let's not get away from his previous 5 years, as that's the most meaningful current sample we can work with.

2010: 64.3%
2011: 87.5%
2012: 84.6%
2013: 80%
2014: 77.8%

Meaning he has a 78.84% conversion rate from 40-49 yards over the past 5 years. In looking at his stats there is an obvious trend, he's converting less and less over the past years. With using linear regression we can see he's projected to have a conversion rate of 74.8% in 2015 from 40-49 yards.

With the success rate of a current average offense being around 25-percent for a 4th and 12, using advanced football analytics calculator NYT 4th down bot (featuring 10 years of DATA analysis). In this situation early on, the risk vs. reward just is not there to go for it.

First Field Goal Attempt: Correct Choice

Now let's get on to the 2nd Field Goal attempt. The Steelers are 4th & 3 on the opponent's 28-yard line. However, some things have changed since the last FG opportunity. The opponent has 7 points, the opponent's offense is moving with ease vs. our defense and our kicker has already missed one that was 44-yards. So, now we're attempting to kick a 47-yard FG.

Given that information already before we even do mathmatical analysis this is just screaming red flag move. If there was ever a time for alarm bells to be going off, this might be the most obvious. You have a much shorter distance to convert for a first down, as well as having a lower FG  percentage conversion rate (from distance and added data from the miss), and now you're playing behind vs. a TD scoring offense.

We have to assume Scobbee succes rate this deep of the 40-49 analysis is likely the low 70th percentile and upper echelon of the 60th percentile. So, now we're looking at a 70-percent conversion rate. Which equates to 30-percent of the time we're going to give it to the opponent at the 28 and be down 7-0 to a high scoring offense vs. a below average defense. Again using Football Analytics + NYT 4th down bot (featuring 10 years of DATA), the success rate of a 4th & 3 is nearing 60-percent. That's 60-percent for an average offense, the Steelers without Martavis Bryant LeVeon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey is one of the league's best. Let alone one of the better offenses vs. a seemingly lesser defense that is not stopping you. This success rate could easily shoot up into the 70-percent range.

Now let's factor in what happens no matter what, if the Steelers make it, or miss. The opponent not only gets the ball back in the 2nd half with 8 minutes to go and 3 time outs, they also deferred at the coin-toss so now they get the ball back after half. That's an opportunity for 14 points unanswered with an offense vs. the Steelers defense that makes that look highly possible. The opponent is averaging 3.5 points per drive. So with a field goal, that's converted. You're looking at 14-3 most likely before you get an opportunity to put up points. There is also a serious likelihood they get to 21-3. That's again presuming the Steelers even convert the field goal here which is a lower percentage kick than anywhere else on the field.

It seems like a tremendous gamble to kick the field goal here. Especially when you are kicking one of the lowest percentage field goals Scobee has to offer other than the 50+ yard range. In a situation where you are likely to be put in a situation where your team is not built to overcome, a deficit.

The idea to kick a field goal here in the second attempt just seems ultimately too conservative of a play given the entirity of the situation. I don't see many outcomes where this particural field goal is going to do much to the outcome of this game. If the Steelers made the first, it changes the decision here slightly, but then again, I still think the correct decision would be to go for it. Even if the score is 6-7 vs. a team where they are expected to score on average given the outcomes so far 7 points, you're looking at 14-6 with a fair shot at 21-6.

Again, the defense is not built that way and the team is in a transition period with a young defense. Sure, you risk getting blown out, but the upside has so much value compared to the downside. Kicking a field goal here changes so little on the outcome of this game/situation, you likely should never kick a field goal here on a 4th & 3 when put into this situation.

Field Goal Attempt Two: It's nothing more to me other than to make the game look closer than it is and putting huge faith in something that's not there, a defense. If you asked me, it's not only the scared play, but, the play to protect a job, not to win a game.

Is Tomlin ever going to learn how to manage the game?

This is something, I seem to be consisitently asking myself, not only with Tomlin, but with NFL coaches overall. Considering I'm a Steelers fan, let's discuss Tomlin's poor choices from Week 1. Albeit, I could divulge into his poor managmement issues of 2014 and prior. He certainly has a trend of poor managment, however, let's get this week's under way.

End of the first half:

Besides his 2nd FG attempt, he had a big blunder at the end of the 1st half. Steelers face a 2nd & 8 with 1:29 left with 3 timeouts. So we have plenty of time. The Steelers end up with a short pass to the left with DeAngelo Williams getting the target for a 5-yard gain. That play ends at 1:21 remaining. Instead of opting for a timeout on a 3rd & 3, they end up sticking to no-huddle. Not a huge issue, but no matter what it's getting to urgency mode, it's time to recognize not to kill too much clock. I don't really feel it's a mistake to not call a timeout here, especially if the personnel is a good matchup vs the opposing teams and you are having no communication issues. Here is where it starts to get a bit sketchy. You've killed the clock down to 53 seconds before getting a snap off. Again, no issue, considering the 3 time outs; however, if you were in that situation with 1 time out, you need to find a way to speed that up.

Steelers end up getting to 4th down & 3, they make a short pass over the middle to convert, they do everything right at this point by quickly calling a time out, they now have 2 left. Here comes the weirdest play call mixed with absolute horrible clock management. The Steelers, with 43 seconds left, call a shotgun draw with DeAngelo, they accumulate 5-yards and instead of using a time out, they opt to no huddle which is extremely risky given you have 37 seconds and 2 time outs. They end up not getting a play off again until 19 seconds.

First, the idea of a shotgun draw without an immediate time out is a play you should eliminate entirely from the playbook here if you're not willing to follow proper clock management. It's again a classic mediocre/borderline bad play mixed with bad time management. It just screams nonsensical and it's something Tomlin has done for years. Steelers end up having to kick a field goal and they still have 1 time out remaining heading into halftime.

Start of the fourth quarter:

The Steelers are 3rd & goal from the inch line, they end up getting a false start, pushing them back to the 5-yard line. Steelers are down 10-points to a New England team who just seems to be cruising vs. the defense. The Steelers need points here, but more importantly, a touchdown. The Steelers end up getting to the line with 13 seconds on the play clock. Ben calls something out and the clock runs down to zero, and probably a second beyond that, Pittsburgh has 3 time outs. Instead of opting to use 1 here, they decide to let this rushed playcall play out. A shotgun draw from the 3rd & goal from the 5-yard line vs a run heavy defense. It was a great opportunity to take a second and make sure you have the right play called, because this is nearing a do-or-die situation for your team. You're getting beat up consistently by a New England offense and you're down by 10. Messing up this play, will give you a 4th down & x, as well as anything beyond like the 2-yard line makes it almost a mandatory pass down. Well it ends up with Pittsburgh again deviating from the normal and they get stuffed for negative play. Basically just eating percentages off the board of completing a successful 4th down conversion. The Steelers end up opting for a field goal, because it's tremendously borderline given the 6th yard line and the limitations of plays you can call and the overall conservative nature of the NFL.

In the end:
It is deviations like these that will cost somebody in Pittsburgh their job. If somebody there wakes up and starts to see the truth, it very well could be Mike Tomlin's job on the line.