NFL Week 11's biggest decisions: Brandon Staley, Mike Tomlin get bold on Sunday night

Which teams got it right on fourth-down and 2-point conversion calls in Week 11 of the 2021 NFL season -- and which teams got it wrong? The Next Gen Stats analytics team uses the Next Gen Stats Decision Guide powered by AWS to break down the numbers behind the decisions that shaped the game.

Ron Rivera flips last week's script


One week ago, Washington's head coach was featured in our weekly fourth-down decisions piece for making suboptimal decisions early, then sealing a win with an appropriately aggressive decision to go for it. Facing his former team this week, the opposite held true for Rivera, as the decisions below show:


SECOND QUARTER: With 1:07 remaining and Washington (trailing 14-7) facing a fourth-and-5 from the Panthers’ 43-yard line, Taylor Heinicke passes to DeAndre Carter for 18 yards and a first down. 


Washington originally faced a fourth-and-inches situation here, with the NGS Decision Guide assigning a go-for-it decision with an increase in expected win probability of 4.5 percentage points. A false-start penalty pushed the offense back by an important 5 yards, and that figure dropped to 2.1 percentage points. No matter; going for it was still the right call, and Rivera kept the offense on the field. Washington converted on the play (a 38 percent proposition) and went on to score a game-tying touchdown four plays later. 


FOURTH QUARTER: With 1:54 remaining and Washington (leading 24-21) facing a fourth-and-3 from the Panthers’ 11-yard line, Joey Slye kicks a 29-yard field goal. 


When a team is up by three points late in a game, kicking a field goal does not push the lead beyond one possession. One week after making the optimal decision in this situation against the Bucs (that is, keeping the offense on the field), Rivera made the suboptimal call: choosing to kick.


According to the NGS win-probability model, Washington’s chances of winning actually dropped following the made field goal -- from 92 percent to 83 percent. We had this as a go-for-it situation by 4 percentage points in expected win probability value. Cam Newton and the Panthers' offense had 1:50 left to try to drive down and score. Keeping the lead at less than 7 points was the suboptimal decision for Washington, and counter to the strategy in last week’s win against the Buccaneers.


Rich Bisaccia goes against the numbers five times


The Raiders faced five fourth-down decisions when the numbers said going for it was the optimal decision by at least 0.5 percentage points. Bisaccia, the team's interim head coach, made the suboptimal decision to kick all five times, losing 9.2 total percentage points in win-probability value as a result.


THIRD QUARTER: With 11:46 remaining and the Raiders (trailing 10-6) facing fourth-and-1 from their own 31-yard line, Las Vegas elects to punt. 


Earlier in the game, the Raiders went against the numbers when Bisaccia elected to punt twice, on fourth-and-3 and fourth-and-4 from the Bengals’ 47- and 44-yard lines, respectively. Going for it here, however, was our strongest recommendation of the game (by 3.1 percentage points in expected win probability value), guided by the Raiders' high probability of converting on fourth down (71 percent) -- and it would have been even higher if they'd called a run play (75 percent). 

Cleveland Browns
2021 · 6-5

Dan Campbell suboptimal twice on fourth-and-1


Less than two weeks ago, we featured Detroit's head coach as one of three fourth-down short-yardage mavens in the first half of the 2021 NFL season -- Campbell started the season by correctly going for it in six of six short-yardage situations (i.e., with less than 1.5 yards to go). However, over the Lions' last two games, Campbell has kept the offense on the field in just two out of five situations when the numbers suggested going for it was the optimal decision by at least 1 percentage point.


Campbell's decision-making this week cost the Lions 3.8 percentage points of win-probability value, a significant figure in a game decided by a field goal.


SECOND QUARTER: With 8:15 remaining and the Lions (trailing 7-0) facing fourth-and-1 from their own 45-yard line, they elect to punt.


Despite trailing by just one score mid-way through the second quarter, Detroit had a win probability of 11 percent before this play, due to the fact that the Lions entered the game as heavy underdogs. Punting here cost them 2.1 percentage points in win-probability value -- it was Campbell's most costly decision of the day. Going for it in your own territory carries the risk of giving your opponent a short field, but the short yardage made the option to go for it relatively safe (69% conversion probability). Besides, the winless Lions don't have much to lose at this point.


FOURTH QUARTER: With 9:10 remaining and the Lions (trailing 13-7) facing a fourth-and-1 from the Browns' 25-yard line, Aldrick Rosas kicks a 43-yard field goal.


Later in the game, Detroit elected to take the 3 points despite being on the cusp of the red zone while trailing by 6. This decision would cost the Lions another 1.7 percentage points in win-probability value. In a low-scoring game like this one, the Lions needed to maximize their opportunities near the Browns' end zone. Kicking the field goal increased their win probability by 1 percentage point, but successfully converting for the first down would have increased their win probability by almost 4 percentage points.


Kliff Kingsbury's aggressiveness is the difference


The Cardinals have not faced many strong go-for-it opportunities -- defined as fourth-down decisions when the numbers suggest going for it helps the team win by at least 2 percentage points -- this season, but when they have, Kingsbury seems to get the decisions right: Kingsbury and staff have made the optimal call in all five situations, and the offense has converted on four of those five plays. 


SECOND QUARTER: With 5:16 remaining and the Cardinals (leading 7-3) facing fourth-and-1 from the Seahawks' 47-yard line, James Conner gains 1 yard on the rush to convert.


This play was a tipping point in the game, as the Cardinals' pre-snap win probability never went below 65 percent the rest of the way. Before the play, Arizona was given a 61 percent chance of winning the game -- that would increase to 67 percent with a successful conversion. On the other hand, the Cardinals' win probability would have dropped to 51 percent if they'd failed to convert. The Cardinals were able to pick up the first down in this short-yardage situation, and were rewarded with a scoring drive that established a two-possession lead.

Brandon Staley makes optimal call to go for it from the Chargers' own territory


Staley has followed the NGS Decision Guide almost to a T when facing fourth downs in Chargers territory this season. Most coaches will take the safe option and punt in that scenario, to avoid giving their opponent easy scoring chances, and to evade the second-guessing that can come from the media and talking heads.


Staley has faced six fourth downs in his own territory this season where the NGS Decision Guide recommended going for it by at least 1.0 percentage point in win-probability value. He has gone for it on all but one of those plays. His 83 percent optimal call rate in these situations comfortably leads the NFL, as we highlighted in our midseason superlatives article. That's almost triple the optimal call rate of the rest of the NFL (29%).


FOURTH QUARTER: With 3:48 remaining and the Chargers (tied 34-34) facing a fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line, Austin Ekeler is stuffed on a rush up the middle for no gain.


After allowing the Steelers to erase a 17-point lead and tie the game up, the Chargers had a chance to close it out and make this their final possession if they could finish with a score. The NGS Decision Guide supported Staley's decision to try and extend this drive, finding +5.1 percentage points in win-probability value. It was certainly a high-leverage situation -- the Chargers would have a 62 percent chance of winning the game if they converted, but their win probability would drop to 32 percent if they failed.


Unfortunately for Staley, the Chargers were stopped in their tracks and turned the ball over on downs. But the process was sound, even if the results didn't bear out. And in the end, the Chargers were able to limit the Steelers to a field goal and get the ball back to pull off the win.


Mike Tomlin correctly keeps offense on the field twice in goal-to-go situations


Entering Sunday night, Tomlin had faced eight fourth-down situations where the Steelers had the ball inside their opponent's 10-yard line. The NGS Decision Guide aligned with Tomlin's decision in only one of those eight situations, which happened to be the only time the Steelers kept the offense on the field -- in Week 8 against the Browns, when Ben Roethlisberger connected with rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth for a 2-yard, game-winning touchdown. Tomlin's 13 percent optimal call rate in these scenarios ranked last in the NFL entering Week 11, and was about one fifth the rate of the rest of the NFL (60 percent).


On the road against the Chargers, in front of plenty of Steelers fans, Tomlin put his trust in his offense -- not once, but twice -- in goal-to-go situations. The NGS model agreed with both decisions.


SECOND QUARTER: With 10:40 remaining and the Steelers (trailing 7-3) facing a fourth-and-goal from the Chargers' 2-yard line, Pat Freiermuth gets stuffed for no gain after receiving a shovel pass.


Despite the result of the play, Tomlin made the correct call here. The NGS Decision Guide strongly recommended going for it in this scenario, finding a +6.2 percentage point difference in win-probability value compared to settling for a field goal. The Steelers were trailing by four points at the time, so a field goal in this scenario would be even less valuable in a game that ended up becoming a thrilling shootout. The Steelers had a 28 percent chance of winning the game before the play, and a successful field goal would have actually dropped their win probability to 27 percent. There was a lot more value to be gained in going for it, as the Steelers' win probability would have increased to 44 percent with a successful conversion.


FOURTH QUARTER: With 11:43 remaining and the Steelers (trailing 27-13) facing a fourth-and-goal from the Chargers' 5-yard line, Chase Claypool draws a pass-interference penalty, wiping out an interception and giving the Steelers a new set of downs on the 1-yard line.


Down two scores with their backs against the wall, the Steelers were in desperation mode at this point in the game. Before the play, the Steelers' win probability was just 5 percent. That would have doubled with a successful conversion (11 percent). The result of the play here illustrates an underrated benefit of going for it -- drawing a penalty can give you a new set of downs. The possibility of a penalty is cooked into the Steelers' 41 percent conversion probability on a pass play. The Steelers were able to get one of the most prevalent calls, with a defensive pass-interference penalty giving them the ball on the 1-yard line. They would score a TD on the next play, kick-starting their multi-possession comeback.

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