Should the Steelers Attempt More Two-Point Conversions This Season?
During the broadcast of Thursday night’s game between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, NBC showed an interesting graphic on the screen.
It noted the Steelers had the second highest two-point conversion success rate of any team since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007. During that time only the Bears have converted a higher rate, 17 of their 19 attempts. That’s not exactly something many would expect from a Mike Tomlin coached team, one that regularly avoids mathematical probabilities on fourth-down and scoring situations.
But the broadcast wasn’t wrong. Heading into the game, the Steelers had successfully converted 10 of their 13 two-point conversion attempts since Tomlin took over as the coach, though more like a risk-averse Tomlin team, the number of two-point attempts is nowhere near the most in the league during that time.
Entering the night, 16 teams had attempted more two-point conversions than the Steelers since 2007 with the Detroit Lions leading the pack at 23.
Maybe it’s not too surprising that the Steelers have seen so much success converting two-pointers when they try. Pittsburgh has never really lacked for offensive playmakers during that time, evidenced by eight different players being responsible for those 10 conversions. Add in Markus Wheaton on the conversion Thursday night and it’s nine players on 11 conversions.
With that type of success, why don’t the Steelers go for two more often?
Last season Pittsburgh had the second best offense in the league by Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play, and is expected to be among the best in the league again this season even with some personnel issues early in the year. NEP factors in on-field variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player’s production to historical expectation levels.
Especially with the returns of Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, the Steelers would again have a wide array of skill players to help the odds of a two point conversion. Pittsburgh also projects, as evidenced last night, to be among the bottom of the league in defense after they finished 25th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play last season, which could mean the Steelers are going to have to score as many points as they can on offense to keep pace in some games.
With the rule moving back the extra point to the 15-yard line, the math favors going for two points more often anyway -- it’s something we’ve discussed here before.
As the extra point got moved back, so did the expected points attributed to it. With a league average kicking rate, teams would be expected to score .936 points with an extra point attempt, while an average two-point attempt at a 48 percent conversion percentage would expect .960 points in return. It's fair to wonder if the Steelers, with the kicking woes of Josh Scobee and past two-point success, might expect to convert below the league average in extra points, while having a higher expected return on two-pointers.
Sure we shouldn’t expect Pittsburgh to continue converting almost 80 percent of two-point attempts, but it should be safe to assume the Steelers will convert more than the average team on future tries given how talented their offense can be.
The expected points may not seem like much, but it might have already influenced a decision in Thursday’s game.
Of the previous 13 two-point attempts for Pittsburgh, 11 came at some point during the fourth quarter and the other two came within the final minute of the first half. Thursday night’s attempt came with over six minutes remaining in the third quarter, a time most coaches would previously write off as too early to go for two.
Maybe there were trust issues with Scobee, who had already missed field goals of 44- and 46-yards earlier in the game. But even if it was, that could be an uncertainty that stays as long as Scobee is on the roster, however long that might be.
In the Tomlin era, 12 of Pittsburgh’s 14 two-point attempts have been passes, and with the new probabilities, it would be hard to fault Tomlin for trusting Ben Roethlisberger more with the ball in his hands than relying on Scobee, or what could be a fourth kicker on the roster this year.
We’re only one game into the season, so there’s no reason to get carried away with the impact of the new extra point. What we did see, though, is a team that went for two in a situation when they probably wouldn’t have before. It’s something that will be interesting to watch as the season moves forward, and something the Steelers particularly should continue thinking about in the coming weeks.