The Urgency Meter: Analyzing 4th Down Decisions from Week 14

4th Down Decisions

Week 14 offered another great array of games involving many tense 4th down decisions that had a large impact on the final outcome of the match. Let’s dive right back into this week’s dilemmas and focus on a game that featured two contrasting decisions.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Buffalo Bills

When the fixtures were announced prior to the season starting, many believed that we were getting treated to a potential Super Bowl preview in Week 14 with this fixture. The Bucs have certainly held up that end of the bargain seemingly coasting their way into the playoffs. The Bills meanwhile have been on a mini-landslide going 2-4 in their last six games. 

Sunday evening’s game was a fascinating tale of two halves with the Bills cutting the deficit from 24-3 to 24-10 late in the third quarter when they found themselves on fourth and three from their own 44-yard line.

Sean McDermott elected for his team to punt the ball back to the Bucs. Let’s take a look at what the numbers may have told him:

  • Probability of First Down:  39.85 %
  • FG Distance:  73
  • Average Expected Points from Drive:  1.29
  • Average Expected Points if Kick:  0.03
  • Average Expected Points for Bucs on Current Drive:  2.49
  • Average Expected Differential:  -19.54
  • Average Expected Points Rest of Game Bills:  4
  • Average Expected Points Rest of Game Bucs:  9

Urgency Meter Score: 0.88

With an Urgency Meter Score of 0.88, the model is loudly suggesting that the correct decision with respect to winning the game would be in fact to go for it here. The numbers really don’t agree with the decision to punt. Why?

The model appears to acknowledge that the probability of a first down isn’t great at just under 40% and likewise the punishment is large with the Bucs average expected points from this field position should they take over standing at 2.49. This was certainly the main driver for the Bills decision to punt. 

That being said, the model takes into account the current drive situation, difference in points, and also the predicted drives for the rest of the game in order to make a prediction on the final score. The difference between the two teams’ predicted final score leads to the urgency of needing to go for it or not. 

The model here predicts that the Bills on average will only go on to score another four points compared to the Bucs nine points. With the Bills already down fourteen points with just over a quarter to go, the level of urgency for the Bills needing to go for it was incredibly high.

What Actually Happened?

The Bills punted, leaving the Bucs on their own ten-yard line. This drive then led to a fascinating decision for the Bucs themselves to make. 

The Bucs received the Bills punt before driving down the field looking to close the game off in the fourth quarter. With 12:10 to go, Tom Brady was almost picked off at the Bills five-yard line on second down before Chris Godwin got stopped short on third down. 

The Bucs appeared as if they were going to ignore a 23-yard chip shot field goal to stretch the lead to 17 points in favor of going for it. They then took a time out before bringing the field goal unit on to take the points. 

Were they correct in doing so? 

  • Probability of First Down:  40.98 %
  • FG Distance:  23
  • Average Expected Points from Drive:  2.18
  • Average Expected Points if Kick:  2.83
  • Average Expected Points for Opposition on Current Drive:  0.82
  • Average Expected Differential:  15.44
  • Average Expected Points Rest of Game Bucs:  4
  • Average Expected Points Rest of Game Bills:  4

Urgency Meter Score: 0.18

The Bucs were absolutely right according to the data and match win probability to decline going for it on fourth down and to instead opt for the points. With average expected points of 2.83 if the field goal is selected, it is very rare to see a miss from this distance according to the kicking data since 2018. The model predicts that the Bucs will see out the game with a 15 point lead from this position and that is the main driver in not needing to risk a fourth down turnover.

What Actually Happened?

The Bucs did indeed stretch the lead to 17 points before relinquishing it as the game went to overtime. Brady proceeded to throw a game-winning touchdown in overtime taking the Bucs to 10-3. What is extremely interesting to note about the above case study is that the Buccaneers fourth-down decision came from the drive that the Bills elected to punt on. 

Had the Bills elected to go for it they possibly would have scored the points needed to win the game or at least prevent the Bucs from scoring the points they ended up needing to take them to overtime. This was a contrast in styles and decision-making where neither team actually chose to go for it on fourth down. 

It’s vital to remember that being aggressive is in fact following the decision that gives your team the highest probability of winning. In this case, Bruce Arians was successfully aggressive.

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