With 4:20 left in the first quarter of a scoreless game, Ben Roethlisberger hit Heath Miller for a touchdown on a quick turnaround route and immediately turned to his sideline and signaled to go for two. It’s the kind of left-brain peel-out the NFL has been looking for on two-point calls for years.
This is something the Steelers—who went for two again after their second touchdown to go up 16-3—are clearly prioritizing this season. Mike Tomlin is one of the more aggressive coaches in the league, and on the short list of guys likely to press the advantage of the new rule’s shifted actuarial tables—not to mention getting reps for inclement late-season AFC North games, half of which will be at notoriously windy Heinz Field.
After the first two scores, Pittsburgh backed off a little and kicked an extra point on the third. It missed. But even that isn’t necessarily a capitulation to lower risk plays. For one, they were stomping the 49ers so badly that it could be as simple as not wanting their best two-point plays on film this early in the season. For another, there’s a time in the game when you’re best off not maximizing your Expected Points Added (that is, going for two): once the endgame scenarios present themselves in the fourth quarter—you’d much rather kick a field goal to go up 12 with three minutes left than max out your EPA on fourth-and-1 from the 10, for instance. When you’re up 29-3 in the first half, it might be a little premature to jump to your endgame protocols, but you’re not exactly wrong to begin minimizing risk in a few small ways. Plus, Josh Scobee sucks, and could use the practice.
Not every team enjoys the same advantages of personnel the Steelers do. Pittsburgh has Roethlisberger, Miller, and after this game, Le’Veon Bell. But as a pilot study, you couldn’t ask for a better volunteer. Often, the teams testing new edges from advanced metrics are rebuilding, and skew the numbers lower than they would be in a natural environment. The Steelers, if they’re serious about this thing, should give us an honest run. They’re 3-3 on the season now, and 13-16 for Tomlin’s career.
This is what we want, though. Missed extra points are hilarious, always, but two-point tries are great no matter how they turn out, especially early in the game when they change the whole decision chain. When teams are put in weird situations, like the Niners driving early in the second, potentially forced to decide just what the hell they’d do if they scored a touchdown to make it 8-6, well, that’s just good TV.