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What should the Seahawks do with fourth downs in no-man’s-land?

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In this week’s Kicker Consideration, Sean Clement raises the question of whether Seattle is being too conservative by choosing to punt instead of kicking long field goals. We dive deeper into this question below in a Field Gulls roundtable.

The things we discuss in the Field Gulls group chat: to kick or not to kick

Question: Where have all the long field goals gone, and do we even want the long field goals to be attempted?

Sean Clement: It may just be coincidence, but Seattle is one of nine teams to not make a field goal from 50 or beyond this year. But we also haven't attempted any that long.

John Fraley: Seems Pete likes to go for it with the ball the upper 30s, or take the delay and punt. Could be a big expected points added advantage to doing both of those over a long FG. A long FG might only make expected points sense at the end of halves.

Sean: I agree, long FG might be meh because a miss gives field position to other team.

John: Considering a theory about how this might be the year, with this defense, to always go for it on the opponents’ side of the field, between the 50 and 35, or on 4th and short.

Ben Baldwin: Taking a step back, should having a great defense increase or decrease the frequency of going for it on 4th? Maybe decrease?

The heated debate

The scenario: let’s say the Seahawks have the ball with 4th and 5 at the opponent’s 36 yard line with 10 minutes left in the second quarter in a tied game. Should Seattle punt, try a field goal, or go for it?

Let’s go through some relevant data points. As always, thanks to the indispensable Pro Football Reference.

  • In 2016 and 2017, on 3rd or 4th down with 4-6 yards to go, Seattle converted a 1st down 48% of the time
  • On field goals between 54 and 58 yards, Blair Walsh is about 70%
  • Expected points for opponent if Seattle goes for it and doesn’t get it: 1.333
  • Expected points for opponent if Seattle punts and it’s downed at the 10 yard line: -0.38 (at the 15, it would be -0.21)
  • Expected points for opponent if Seattle misses FG: 1.795
  • Expected points for opponent if Seattle makes FG and kicks a touchback: -3 + .607 = 2.39
  • Expected points for opponent if Seattle gains 6 yards and a 1st down: -3.577
  1. Expected points for Seattle for going for it: .48*3.577 + .52*-1.333 = 1.024
  2. Expected points for Seattle punting: 0.38
  3. Expected points for Seattle kicking FG: .7[2.39] -.3[1.795]= 1.13

The unexpected case for punting: Ben

Looking at the above numbers, kicking a field goal appears to be the best option despite the large penalty from missing (30 percent of the time), and despite losing the upside of a potential touchdown you might get by going for it.

The expected points model indicates Seattle can go for it with plenty of confidence in the numbers, with EPA showing a virtual toss-up between the field goal choice and the fourth-down conversion choice. I think going for it should be the default position, but there are some cases where it sort of makes sense to punt and try to pin the opponent deep. Last year, after Earl Thomas was injured, I would have said go for it with no hesitation. If you know the opponent is probably going to score regardless of field position (like, hypothetically speaking, the 2016 Atlanta Falcons at home in the playoffs), then pinning the opponent deep does not carry as much value and you should be going for it more often.

However, when Seattle’s defense is at its peak and not allowing explosive plays, it is very unlikely that the opponent will drive all the way down the field and score. The opponent would need to convert so many consecutive 3rd downs that the math starts working against them very quickly. Eventually, odds are, Seattle will get the ball back after punting, albeit with worse field position. The defensibility of punting increases with the amount that Seattle is favored by and the badness of the opposing offense. In short, if Seattle is favored and expected to dominate when they are on defense, playing a risk-averse game and punting probably isn’t as bad as the expected points numbers make it out to be.

The (caveat-filled) case for going for it: John

Since Ben has shown that the EPA penalty for a missed field goal — which is going to happen sometimes from 54 yards out -- is significant, I’ll officially propose that the three-point try be used exclusively at the end of halves, when a miss costs you nothing on the following drive, and a make carries only positives. You weren’t going to score a touchdown in the remaining seconds of the second quarter, and you can win on the last-second FG. It’s a win-win situation, barring a situation like the end of the home Titans game in 2013. We don’t need to replay that forgettable moment, right?

With the field goal option pretty clearly shelved, and the punting option pretty well laid out by Ben, I’d like to take the opportunity to ride this 2017 defense’s bendiness as far as it will... bend.

Because this defense is built to bend without breaking. They’re actually pulling off. Coaches, for decades, have raved publicly about their team’s bend-but-don’t-break ability. Those coaches are mostly lying. Compared to the 2017 Seahawks, at least, who lead the NFL in red zone scoring defense, and by a wide margin. Only 28.6 percent of the time, Seattle’s foes turn a red zone possession into six points. The second-place team (Cincinnati) is more than 6 percentage points behind, at 35 percent.

In fact, a 28.6 red zone defensive percentage would be nine percentage points better than any team has done this decade, in any season. The Seahawks are turning their own 10-yard line into another 30-yard line, basically.

Next point: a tied game in the second quarter is a pretty neutral state. Giving up a field goal doesn’t get you in any hot water, so if you think the Seahawks defense will hold the opponent to three points in case the fourth down attempt fails, then you’re not risking a ton. Go for it -- you’re not likely to pay as steep of a price as the overall league numbers suggest. The worry would be, are you setting up the defense for a short field and a possible touchdown they wouldn’t allow otherwise? I will argue you really aren’t -- at home.

In 22 home defensive drives this year, the Seahawks have given up one touchdown. That lonely event required a perfect throw by Jacoby Brissett, to the corner of the end zone, beating perfect coverage, during a play on which he was pressured. That’s the only touchdown allowed, all year, at home. The same play probably results in an incompletion the next couple times it happens.

Go for it, then? Yeah. At home. While the level of competition (Indianapolis and San Francisco are a combined 2-12 this season) has been lacking so far, it’s hard to discount the advantage of a home setting, where noise eliminates audibles, enhances pressure, puts the offensive line in a bind.

That being said, on the road the Seahawks are no slouches. 44 drives have resulted in seven touchdowns. The problem is, short fields have been especially treacherous for them away from home. Five drives started within 60 yards of the Seattle end zone. All ended in points: four touchdowns, one field goal.

Two more factors play into my decision to go for it more:

  1. The 2017 Seahawks have begun to ballhawk again. They’re on pace for 27 takeaways this year, which would be their most since 2013. What year again? 2013. A pretty good vintage. An excess of turnovers that year made the season turn out all right.
  2. I also like going for it from a time of possession standpoint. Gambling on 4th and 5 from the 35 allows you to keep the other defense on the field if you convert. It also eliminates the possibility of the other team launching a 6-minute, 90-yard drive that flips time of possession the wrong way. More likely, when sent out near midfield to defend half the blades of grass, the Seattle defense is going to spend three to seven plays on the field and allow zero to three points.

One negative is an immediate stop near midfield allows the opponent to pin Seattle deep in case of a three-and-out. But you’ll probably trade that, if you’re Carroll, for zero points allowed in a tied game.

More point-counterpoints down the road

Field Gulls writers have been in communication regularly on how to bring discussions like this one into the greater community. If you’d like to see two, three or four writers debate a topic, please drop it in the comments below or hit us up on social media. Here. Have some twitter handles.

Ben: @guga31bb

John: @johndavidfraley

Kenneth and Field Gulls: @FieldGulls