PITTSBURGH (AP) – Football nerds who have been preaching the virtue of the 2-point conversion over the traditional extra-point kick for years have a friend in Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin’s affinity for one of the game’s biggest risk/reward plays has less to do with math and more to do with his gut.
“I have a lot of respect for analytics, but I’m not going to make judgments based on them,” Tomlin said. “It’s an emotional game played by emotional and driven men. That’s an element that can’t be measured.”
Except on the scoreboard.
The Steelers converted a pair of 2-pointers early in last Sunday’s 43-18 win over San Francisco, decisions based more on momentum and matchups than the precious sheet that has told coaches when to go for it since the option was introduced in the NFL in 1994.
“It’s a feel thing because there’s a lot we don’t know until we get into the stadium,” Tomlin said. “As we start to play, particularly during touchdown drives, we have an inclination of what (an opponent’s) personality is. All of those things carry weight.”
Pittsburgh is 13 for 16 when going for two during his nine-year tenure, including 3 for 3 this season. On most of those attempts, Tomlin was following the recommendations of the sheet.
Not last Sunday. When Heath Miller caught a short touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter, Roethlisberger motioned for the offense to stay on the field. He then hit Antonio Brown for an easy conversion to make it 8-0. Leading by five in the second quarter, the Steelers initially were going to kick but opted to go for it after the 49ers were flagged, pushing the ball to the 1-yard line. A short flip to Miller later, Pittsburgh was up 16-3.
“It’s something we practiced a lot and felt comfortable with,” Roethlisberger said. “I tried to tell (people) early on that we would do it, and you just didn’t quite believe it.”
Pittsburgh’s opportunism is exactly what the NFL competition committee had in mind when it moved the extra point back in the offseason. What was once a gimme chip shot is now a less automatic 33-yard try. The success rate through two weeks is at 94 percent, compared to over 99 percent during the 2014 season. When Washington’s Kirk Cousins found Jamison Crowder for two on Thursday night, it was the eighth 2-pointer of the year, putting the league well on pace to outdistance last year’s total of 28.
The Redskins, however, were way behind and chasing points. The Steelers weren’t. For now, that seems to make them an outlier.
Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly was the last coach to go for two so early in a game, when he lined the Eagles up in a peculiar formation in the first quarter of a Week 3 matchup with San Diego in 2013. Tight end Zach Ertz took a direct snap and was tackled short of the goal line. After experimenting unsuccessfully with Tim Tebow during the preseason, the usually rebellious Kelly sounds like a traditionalist.
“I don’t think there is anything to entice us,” Kelly said. “The ball has been on the 2-yard line for the longest time. So just look at the statistics on trying to get a 2-point play; if they wanted to encourage us to go for two, then they should have moved where we were going for two from.”
That’s not an issue for the Steelers. They incorporate a “seven shots” drill into nearly every practice, with the first-team offense getting seven chances to score from the 2. The night before each game the coaching staff and Roethlisberger find 7-10 conversion plays they like.
St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher, whose team hosts Pittsburgh on Sunday, says the Rams spent more time than usual on 2-point plays this week. While many coaches remain hesitant to embrace going for two, he anticipates attempts rising. If there’s anything the NFL loves, it’s trying to find a way to copycat success.
“I think you will see a change in offensive philosophy, especially as time goes on as we move later into the season,” he said.
The Steelers and their alpha dog of a coach are in no mood to wait. If they’ve got the momentum and the advantage, they’ll take their chances. With one of the league’s best offenses, why not?
“That’s why you play the game,” Tomlin said. “Analytics can work, but football is always going to be football.”
AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Missouri, Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia, Jon Krawczynksi in Minneapolis and Dennis Waszak in East Rutherford, New Jersey contributed to this report.
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