Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

21 Dec 2009

Mike Tomlin Explains His Wacky (and Ultimately Right) Onside Kick

I'm guessing people will want to talk about this one, even before we get Audibles at the Line up in the morning. I'm sure somebody else out there will run some good numbers on this. All I know is that Pittsburgh winning the game doesn't make this the right decision. Either it was, or it wasn't, but that's based on the probabilities, not based on the outcome -- just like the Belichick fourth-and-2 which has now been topped as "controversial call of the year."

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 21 Dec 2009

40 comments, Last at 21 Dec 2009, 4:58pm by Justin Zeth


by Joseph :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 12:24am

Watched the highlights on NFL.com.
1. It was BALLSY.
2. The reason it (nearly) worked was the element of surprise. Nobody was expecting it.
3. I would have to see the numbers. I expect that the numbers won't back him up. But his logic, as Belichick's was, boils down to this: Big gamble, that if it works, probably wins the game (for sure in Belichick's case--here, there was more time left). If it works, sure they probably score--even a TD. But at least we have time to come back and win the game. This time it works.
4. I am glad to see coaches try some unconventional things to ty to win the game, instead of settling for a close loss (channeling my inner TMQ).

by MurphyZero :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 12:30am

What GB needed was MJD or Westbrook out there, to recognize that the game depended on the clock not on the score and take a knee at the one. I still say that kicking off would have resulted in a Steelers loss based on Steelers D and special teams, so it is the right call. It just depended on GB taking the points, quickly, and they obliged. Smarter playcalling by GB and it would have been a Steelers loss.
The other key is that the onsides was surprising and should have worked--the Steelers were in position to get the ball past 10 yards. Unfortunately they were also in position at 8 yards, and made the mistake of doing so.

by ArchnerdUW :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 1:36am

Considering the Steelers close losses all season and their 4th quarter defensive woes, Tomlin had to make this call. It makes sense, when viewed from his perspective. Consider:

1. His defense hasn't stopped anyone since early in the 1st quarter.
2. GB's defense hasn't stopped the Steelers at all either.
3. If he kicks it deep, GB has chance to run off the clock and win the game with no time left for a Steelers response.
4. Finally, if the Steelers were to lose another game w/ a last minute scoring drive by the opposing team...man I don't think the team could ever recover. Talk about losing your mojo.

As a rabid Steelers homer, I agree with the call win or lose. With any other Steelers defense; I think it would be an epically bad call...but w/ the 2009 version...only call that could be made.

by slipknottin :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 2:02am

I still dont understand why the patriots didnt just let the colts score. Would have given brady the ball back down by 1 with well over a minute left.

by PatsFan :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 2:16am

Yeah. NE really and truly lost the game when they tackled Addai on the one instead of letting him score.

by ChrisZ (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 4:39am

Yes, because up by 6 the savvy thing to do is let your opponent score a touchdown rather than try to keep him from ever going ahead . . .

by Still Alive (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 2:22pm

It is, you let them score there the chance of you winning goes up. Just like in the PIT game yesterday where their chance of winning went up after the Packers score. Having the ball with a decent amount of time left is just as important as having the lead, especially if it is a 1 2 or 3 point lead.

by billsfan :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 10:51am

Because the Colts were smart enough not to score too quickly.

(I also like the Eagles)

by PatsFan :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 11:51am

Smartness had nothing to do with it. On the play where NE took Addai down on the one, Addai wasn't dogging it. He was clearly going all out trying to score. Now, after that the Colts took their time scoring.

by Q (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 2:07am

-The sad thing was how the announcers were not smart enough to even understand the rationale that Tomlin wanted to leave enough time for his offense in case GB Scored

-I wish people would be killing McCarthy for not using his Timeouts at the end of the 1st half when Pitt was close to scoring, leaving GB with only around 36 seconds to try to score.

Amazing how the game showed 1 coach who understands the clock and 1 who doesn't

by IsraelP (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 4:54am

The logic of the onside kick was obvious to me the moment it happened and, as a Steelers fan, I was delighted. Tomlin's explanation covered all the bases.

But it's Tomlin's bad that Ike Taylor didn't know (or knew and didn't follow) the "ten yards" rule.

by Justin Zeth :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 8:10am

Yeah, after my inlaws were done joining Joe and Troy flipping out, I muted the TV and explained to them exactly what Tomlin's rationale was: The Packers are going to score no matter how deep we kick the ball; therefore we might as well try to either keep the ball, or let them have the ball where they'll score quickly and leave Roethlisberger enough time to do what he does.

Then it worked--and credit to Roethlisberger, who I've been slagging lately, he made two absolutely *perfect* throws on that drive, including the final touchdown--and now my inlaws think Tomlin is a genius...

(paragraph deleted here - checked the video, and my memory deceived me. Nothing to see here.)

by BlueStarDude :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 8:10am

It seems like we have seen fewer onside kicks recoveries since the rule limiting the number of players to either side. I know it would be a small sample size but has anyone run the numbers?

by mm (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 2:40pm

I don't have the numbers, but it shouldn't matter for 'surprise' onside kicks like the one the Steelers did. If you unbalance your kick off formation, you're tipping off your opponents.

by Podge (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 8:31am

Troy Aikman's commentary on it was terrible. It was fairly unintelligble, so I might not have actually understood what he meant, but I got the jist of what he was saying straight afterwards as "if Ike Taylor hadn't touched it after 9 yards and had picked it up at 10 it would have been a great play call, but it was a terrible call."

My favourite bit of it was that it seemed like the ref standing at the 40 yard line wasn't going to give illegal touch. He was standing no more than 5 yards away from Taylor, and clearly looking back at him, yet didn't chuck a flag in. I genuinely thought straight afterwards that the Steelers had got away with it.

by bubqr :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 8:44am


Where is FireOmarTomlin when we need him ?

by Justin Zeth :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 8:52am

Why the hell should he have confidence with this defense? It had been getting lit up like a Christmas tree all day, and Tomlin's already read the bestseller The Steelers Defense Gives Up a Long Game Winning Touchdown Drive at Game's End numerous times this year.

I didn't like the call, but I can at least comprehend why he did it.

For the record, I'd almost like the call if the Steelers were playing against a coach who knew how to operate a two minute drill. Against the Packers, I kinda like kicking deep and relying on McCarthy to screw up.

by AFireSnake (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 8:56am

So, FO has statistics that factor momentum? Huh? Maybe I need to get the premium version ... (sarcasm).

The only thing I agree is that you cannot decide "good call, bad call" based on that it worked. But taking probabilities as the measuring stick somehow shows some heavily limited understanding of the game.

by JStreet (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 10:24am

Pretty sure they didn't claim to have momentum numbers. More like looking at situational probabilities like they posted about the Pats call he mentioned.

by AFireSnake (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 9:11am

One other question:

under four minutes left on the clock, you lead by 3, you are in field goal range, say a pretty safe field goal (if your kicker is not called "Folk") of 33 yds. You have 4th and about three or four to go, just took your next-to-last timeout. It is a medium-high scoring game, the opposition can move the ball. The opposition has timeouts left.

Do you kick the the FG or do you go for it?

I mean, upping the lead to six eventually increases the likelihood for you to lose the game because the opposing team is forced to score a TD, which kills you.

If you lead by three, the opposing team might play only for the FG (except for the Pats in SBs) ...

Wow the CAPTCHA is "Mr Rapidly", I wonder how quick you adjusted to JaMarcus' performance yesterday. Kudos!

by Justin Zeth :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 9:15am

I think in most cases you have to take the field goal in that scenario.

by Sophandros :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 10:37am

Like the Belichick call, the problem was not in the decision but in the execution. Ike Taylor got impatient with it, and based on the replays, he could have let the ball travel another yard or yard and a half prior to catching it. He does this, and the brilliant end game that we saw doesn't happen.

Oh, by the way, the guys over at Advanced NFL Stats agree with the call: http://www.advancednflstats.com/2009/12/should-steelers-have-kicked-onsi...

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

by Jim from Pgh (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 10:45am

I have never in my life used the phrase, "Great play, Ike Taylor!"

Except sarcastically.

by Justin Zeth :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 11:55am

My unofficial count this year for Ike Taylor is 9 dropped interceptions versus 0 interceptions.

He's the quintessential example of a phenomenal athlete that might well have been a great wide receiver, but is instead a mediocre cornerback because he cannot catch a cold.

by FireOmarTomlin :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 1:21pm

His career dropped INT count is nearing in on 40 IIRC.

OK, let's say the Onside Kick is the "right call". Putting Ike Manos de Piedras out there as part of your recovery "hands" team is laughable, I'm still shocked he actually caught it, even if it didn't count due to illegal touching.

Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.

by DrewTS (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 4:32pm

Is Taylor on the regular kick coverage team? If so, that's probably why he was out there on this one. Putting in a whole new package of players, or even just a few recognizable players like Holmes or Ward, is a big tip off that something is up.

by Justin Zeth :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 4:58pm

Even taking Ike Taylor individually off the kick coverage team would be akin to putting a flashing 'ONSIDE KICK COMING!' sign on the Jumbotron. That Ike Taylor can't catch anything is not exactly a secret around the NFL. People watch film.

by andrew :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 11:48am

FWIW on that touchdown pass, the Packers receiver should have gotten to the 1 and then went down in bounds, like MJD did a few weeks back.

He does that and they win the game.

by ChiJeff (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 1:02pm

Maybe. I have always felt that when the opportunity to score presents itself you take it. Never take it for granted that if you fall on the one yard line that it is a guarantee score. Too many goofy things can happen. ( fumble, int, penalty )You just have to trust that your defense and all world d coordinator can do the job with a 6 point lead.

by Still Alive (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 2:46pm

This is just incredibly wrong. The point of the game isn't to have the most points. The point is to have MORE than your opponent. That is a very important difference.

by Mikey Benny :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 1:17pm

Well... the Packers had already missed a 34 yard (give or take a couple of yards) field goal earlier in the game, and this is Heinz Field after all. Never know what can happen. I remember a Steelers-Bengals game with multiple missed extra points by both teams due to the conditions.

by mm (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 2:42pm

Haven't the Steeler's given up TDs on kickoff returns at a ridiculous rate? That makes the decision even more understandable.

by FireOmarTomlin :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 3:02pm

That rationalization would perhaps make sense if they had stopped kicking off to dangerous (err, any) deep returnmen prior to this game in significance. TD's aside, their coverage has been flat out terrible, and an explicit policy of kicking OOB every time would likely have been a better strategy from the getgo, if the season could be rebooted...

Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.

by Justin Zeth :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 3:21pm

Yes, and not only that, but Reed was kicking off preposterously short even by his standards--all game long, his kickoffs were low line drives that landed around the 10. I'm in favor of keeping Reed around to kick field goals if the price is reasonable, because he knows how to kick at Heinz, but they HAVE to get a kickoff specialist.

But then, if the Packers take the kickoff to the house it's not terrible for the Steelers--what Tomlin wanted to avoid was the Packers starting at the 30, taking their time, milking the clock and scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 23 seconds left. Which he felt pretty certain was going to happen if the Steelers kicked deep and then tackled the returner, and he may well be right to feel that way.

I presume Ike Taylor is usually on the kick coverage team, and couldn't easily be removed from it because that might spoil the element of surprise.

by FireOmarTomlin :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 3:28pm

<< I'm in favor of keeping Reed around to kick field goals if the price is reasonable, because he knows how to kick at Heinz, but they HAVE to get a kickoff specialist.

In Madden, Sepulveda is the default kickoff guy and has touchback-near touchback leg strength IIRC.... he's also a great tackler...

Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.

by Justin Zeth :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 3:46pm

I suspect Madden is overestimating Sepulveda's leg strength; he doesn't really boom punts. He did in 2007, but it seems like maybe the knee injury cost him some leg strength somehow. His value as a punter comes from being deadly accurate.

That said, he still almost certainly would be a better kickoff man than Reed, who is just beyond terrible.

Special teams is an organizational blind spot for the Steelers. The past 10-15 years, many/most NFL teams have pursued an edge by paying particular attention to special teams, but the Steelers have not. They just don't regard special teams as particularly important, and never have; they're still in the 1990 toss-some-guys-out-there-don't-fumble-and-tackle-the-guy mode. It doesn't occur to them to have anyone but the placekicker kick off, and the placekicker is selected solely for his ability to kick 40 yard field goals reliably. Their idea of a special teams ace was Sean Morey, a smart guy with marginal talent (too marginal to ever see the field on offense or defense).

Signing Stefan Logan was hopefully a sign they're coming around; he's been good, and last year they wound up shrugging and having their 230 pound short-yardage running back return kickoffs a reliable 15 yards every time, because they couldn't find anyone else that could reliably hold onto the damned ball.

The next steps are (a) kickoff specialist; (b) paying top dollar for a top special teams coach, and giving him a few roster spots specifically for special teams guys.

by Justin Zeth :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 3:26pm

As a fan, it was a fun game and I would have been happy with either result... in practice, honestly, all they accomplished by winning was costing themselves four or five slots of draft position, but what the hell? It was a fun game to watch, they won, and it was cool to watch Roethlisberger go over 500 passing yards.

Had they lost, the game would have gone down in history as The Night Tomlin Went Crazy, he would have been absolutely roasted by the media for giving up and not trusting his defenseā„¢, and it would have greased the skids for his eventual exit in a few years.

I remain unimpressed with his coaching, but you have to admit the man has balls.

by evenchunkiermonkey (not verified) :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 4:28pm

I thought what a lot of you were saying about Jones going down inbounds at the one was a great idea, except not so much as I think about it more. He goes down with 2:06 remaining. If Tomlin is the clock god as some posters have implied, then he calls TO before the two minute warning. so a knee on 1st leaves it at the two minute warning, a knee on second leaves about 1:57 after the last PIT timeout, a knee on third leaves 1:30, FG leaves 1:27 and the Packers lead is 31 -30 with nearly as much time as the steelers needed to score a TD, so in summation Jarrett Bush sucks balls.

by andrew :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 4:37pm

Good analysis. If he could have held up at the goal line for six seconds, then maybe. But probably a longshot.

So I guess the proper way for the Packers to win was for them to onside kick back to the Steelers. One, they wouldn't expect it, two, you don't have to fear being in FG range because they'd need a TD, and three you'd have about 30 seconds or so to get into FG range at the end.

by andrew :: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 4:34pm

Say the other team is down by 2 and has the ball at the 5, inside 2 minutes and you can't stop the clock. They run the ball.... most people agree your only hope is to let them score, so you have time to come back. Right?

Because the FG is a near sure thing at this point and if they work the clock down the game will be almost certainly over, or at any rate its beyond your power to do anything about it.

Why don't people complain about this not showing a lack of faith in your kick block team to let them try and block it. That's what they are paid to do, right? But they haven't blocked a kick all day! exactly. If they blocked them regularly it might make sense. But there was no sign of any reason to expect that.

About the same with the Steelers defense. I don't think the onside kick was just the right call. I think it was a great call.

If the steelers somehow sneak into the playoffs and go on a run you can look back to that call.