- The Washington Times - Monday, January 11, 2021

On Sunday in two separate playoff games, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel faced a decision.

With their respective teams trailing in the fourth quarter, each had gotten to good field position and each faced a key fourth-down call in which they had to choose whether to go for it or punt it.

Tomlin and Vrabel chose the latter — opting for field position in hopes their defenses would bail them out. 

That, experts said, was the wrong choice. 

Tomlin and Vrabel were panned Sunday for being too conservative as both ended up losing their playoff games.  Here’s a look at each situation and why the two coaches faced such heavy criticism for punting.

Titans down 17-13 with 10:06 left, facing fourth-and-2 at Baltimore 40-yard line 

Those well-versed in analytics skewered Vrabel for punting. The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin, who created a fourth-down bot to evaluate every fourth down in the NFL using an advanced model, found the decision to be the third-worst punting decision of the season.

Baldwin’s model strongly recommended that Vrabel should have gone for it, noting there was a 61% chance of a conversion. According to Pro Football Reference, the Titans were the first team to punt from that territory in a one-score game in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, based on play-by-play data dating back to 1994. 

Vrabel told reporters that his team was playing well defensively, which factored into the decision. That was true and on Baltimore’s next possession, the Titans limited Baltimore to a field goal — meaning it was still a one-score game when Tennessee got the ball back. 

The problem? The Ravens’ drive took nearly six minutes off the clock and the Titans had to scramble to try and score. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw a fourth-down interception from their own 30-yard line in a last-ditch effort to make something happen.

Steelers down 35-23 with 15:00 left, facing fourth-and-1 at Pittsburgh 46

This one was just as baffling, given Pittsburgh needed two scores to take the lead. Like Vrabel, Tomlin justified his decision by arguing that the Steelers were trying to pin Cleveland deep.

The Browns, though, weren’t fazed — scoring a touchdown on their next drive to make it a 42-23 game. Cleveland didn’t waste as much time as Baltimore did on its drive, but still ran 2:20 off the clock and put the Steelers behind by three scores.

The analytic models weren’t kind to Tomlin‘s choice, either.

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