A decision on Sunday was easy to criticize, but analytics generally back up the Detroit Lions going for it on fourth down when they do.
Facing a fourth-and-one from their own 28-yard line with around four minutes to go in Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, leading 23-21, the Detroit Lions went for it. More than the actual decision, with failure setting the Vikings up in field goal range, the play call was bad.
On the move a bit and with nowhere he could get the ball to, quarterback Jared Goff was sacked and he fumbled. It was a small difference in field position for the Vikings as they were getting the ball back if the play fell short, and they would score a touchdown on their ensuing possession.
However, The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin’s fourth down decision bot says the Lions absolutely should have gone for it in that situation. So the issues really were the play call and the lack of execution.
Much has rightly been made of head coach Dan Campbell’s lack of aggressiveness since taking over calling offensive plays for the Lions. But in general, the Lions go for it on fourth down when it makes sense.
Excluding the final 30 seconds of a game and win probability greater than 20 percent, Baldwin has a data table that says the Lions are the team in the league that goes for it the most when they “should” (when a gain in win probability of at least one percent would be attained if successful).
Given that they only have one win this season., it’s not surprising the Lions have the lowest number of “ideal” fourth down opportunities to go for it based on Baldwin’s win probability-weighted criteria. But doing it at a rate higher than any other team stands out, as Campbell has generally taken a “nothing to lose” approach to try to gain any sort of edge for his team.