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Looking Back At Key Fourth-Down Decisions From NFL Week 2

Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson

Each week, the Sports Info Solutions (SIS) research team will comb through the previous week of NFL games and evaluate interesting fourth-down decisions. 

It won’t always be the best or worst calls, as just the situation itself is often compelling enough to discuss. But in all situations, we’ll look at how the numbers might lean and add in the contextual factors that should affect that decision.

Any talk of win probability in this space uses SIS’s model, which is trained on several years of play-by-play data. We’ll often mention expected win probability added (xWPA), which uses the model’s expectation for what might happen if the offensive team chooses to go for it, punt or kick a field goal. The expected result for each possible option is based on historical data on fourth-down conversions, punt distances and kick accuracy.

For this week’s review, we will start in Atlanta.

Week 2 Key Fourth-Down Calls

Packers vs. Falcons; 2:08 Left in 4th Quarter

Falcons: 4th-and-1 from the Packers' 23, trailing 22-24

Though converting a 40-yard field goal would have given the Atlanta Falcons the lead, coach Arthur Smith decided he needed to run more clock and not give the ball back to Jordan Love and the Green Bay Packers — or did he?

Smith’s reaction when the Falcons lined up for the fourth down conversion was one of fear and regret, but luckily, he has one of the NFL’s best young running backs in Bijan Robinson. Robinson took the pitch on the right side for seven yards, gaining the first down, which eventually led to the winning field goal by Younghoe Koo.

Whether it was a bad look or the wrong play call, Smith shared he had no regrets postgame.

"I felt good about the play and the way we were blocking. Whether it was going to Bijan or Tyler in that situation,” Smith said. “I had a lot of confidence that they were going to get the first. That's the belief."

In terms of our model, he made the right decision by a landslide. By choosing to go, the Falcons gained the second-highest expected win probability of the week at 15.9 percent.

Converting the fourth down resulted in a whopping 21.3 percent of actual win probability added. Decisions like these will help Smith not only climb up the fourth-down coaching decision rankings but also earn the trust of his team.

Chargers vs. Titans; 14:13 left in 2nd Quarter

Chargers: 4th-and-1 from Titans' 44, leading 3-0

We have come a long way since Brandon Staley was one of the more aggressive coaches in the league when it came to fourth-down decisions. Staley came into Week 2, ranking 17th in fourth-down decisions. But the updated rankings will see him quickly drop after making three decisions that ended up in the bottom five in xWPA.

This decision specifically shows how much Staley has changed, deciding to forgo a fourth-and-1 in opponent territory and punt the ball away. He passed on an attempt with a 74 percent success rate on average and surrendered 5.1 percent of expected win probability. The result was only a 29-yard punt, giving the Tennessee Titans the ball at their 15.

After a 0-2 start, it might behoove Staley to revisit his younger days and rediscover his aggressive nature before this season goes too far south.

Bears vs. Buccaneers; 6:20 left in 3rd Quarter

Buccaneers: 4th-and-1 from Bears' 32, leading 13-10

In last week’s fourth down review, we highlighted (or lowlighted) a decision by coach Todd Bowles to kick a 57-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter, which was the third-best choice available to him in that situation. Bowles also came into Week 2 ranked 28th in fourth-down decision-making in the last two years.

He started to gain ground with this decision in the third quarter, adding 8.9 percent of expected win probability, which was the third-highest of the week. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would score a touchdown on the drive and put the Chicago Bears out of reach for the rest of the game. 

The Buccaneers offense has found some life with QB Baker Mayfield and new offensive coordinator Dave Canales. It could be so much that Bowles will start making more aggressive fourth-down decisions regularly.

Dolphins vs. Patriots; 2:19 left in 4th quarter

Dolphins: 4th-and-3 from Patriots’ 37, leading 24-17

The Miami Dolphins field goal unit had a rough outing Sunday night in Foxborough, going one-for-three with one blocked (as coach Bill Belichick flexed his innovative muscles once again). The last attempt was from 55 yards out and could have iced the game, but Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders pulled it left, giving the New England Patriots one last opportunity to tie it up.

Our model said this was the third-best option for Miami. Their expected win probability dropped from 93.7 percent with a punt or 93.3 percent by going for it to 90.9 percent by attempting the field goal.

Counter to the perception that “the analytics” hates punting, our model estimates an additional 2.8 percent of expected win probability could have been added by punting the ball away and making the Patriots go the length of the field to get a game-tying touchdown.

The Patriots struggled to move the ball consistently all night, so making them go the length of the field would’ve been a tall task.

This story was authored by James Weaver.