Maybe more than ever, teams are being aggressive in going for it on fourth down. Many see that as a nod in the directions of analytics where the numbers are telling coaches to be more assertive and settle for fewer field goals. Pittsburgh – largely – hasn’t been part of that new wave, going for it when they absolutely have to. Tuesday, Mike Tomlin was asked why Pittsburgh hasn’t joined the new wave. He chalked it up less to analytics and more to something else.
“Analytics is a tool, but it’s not the tool,” Tomlin said via the team’s YouTube channel. “Because all circumstances are different. There’s an uptick in fourth down attempts in the National Football League because there’s probably more quarterback mobility than ever before in the National Football League.”
Through five weeks, five teams already have ten or more fourth down attempts with the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions leading the league with 11 each. For the Lions, that’s a product of being 0-5. But the Browns are 3-2 and the analytic-minded front office and coaching staff have been aggressive in all situations, not just when they need to convert. To Tomlin’s point, they do have a mobile QB in Baker Mayfield, opening up more of the playbook for boots and rollouts and the QB scrambling for a first down if he has to.
The Steelers, you may have noticed, don’t have that sort of quarterback running luxury.
“What analytics may tell us as it pertains to that might speak to that quarterback mobility but that’s not a core component of play for us. And so we don’t make decisions exclusively based on analytics. It’s simply a tool. We acknowledged that more people are going for it than ever before. Quarterback mobility has a lot to do with it. But obviously that’s not how we’re built.”
Mobility alone doesn’t explain the surge in fourth down attempts. The teams with the fewest fourth down attempts are the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, and New England Patriots. Three of those four teams have highly mobile quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson (now injured, of course), and Kyler Murray.
Probably the correct answer, as it often is, is a combination of factors. Some of that may be QB mobility as Tomlin said. Some of that is a product of game circumstances. That’s why the hapless Lions are at the top and the undefeated Cardinals are near the bottom. Some of that is the surge of analytics compelling coaches, conservative by nature for a century, to push the envelope in a league where teams score more points than ever before.
For Pittsburgh, they don’t have two of those three elements. They’re at the bottom in QB mobility and likely at the bottom in terms of analytics, Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s old-school philosophy making them “gut guys” over the numbers
The new-school crowd will turn their nose at Tomlin’s comments. But the Steelers are a whooping 0-5 on 4th down this season. So maybe the best thing for them is to go against the data.