When Should NFL Teams Call Timeouts on Defense at the End of The First Half?

By Max Mulitz

 

Using the Pro Football Reference Drive Finder, I compiled the scoring rate for drives starting during the last five minutes of the first half from 2011-2015. I broke the data into two tables, one for drives starting inside Own 25 and one for drives starting between Own 25 and Midfield.

At/Inside Own 25
Time Remaining (Seconds) Number of Drives Drive Scoring Rate Drive Touchdown Rate Points Per Drive
0 to 30 365 1% 0% 0.02
31 to 60 291 11% 3% 0.43
61 to 90 202 24% 5% 0.95
91 to 120 307 22% 9% 1.05
121 to 150 136 30% 15% 1.52
151 to 180 135 32% 13% 1.46
181 to 210 127 28% 19% 1.58
211 to 240 133 27% 11% 1.23
241 to 270 111 25% 14% 1.30
271 to 300 120 30% 19% 1.67

 

Own 26-Midfield
Time Remaining (Seconds) Number of Drives Drive Scoring Rate Drive Touchdown Rate Points Per Drive
0 to 30 184 8% 1% 0.25
31 to 60 130 34% 6% 1.26
61 to 90 88 38% 16% 1.76
91 to 120 136 43% 24% 2.25
121 to 150 54 33% 20% 1.81
151 to 180 70 37% 19% 1.86
181 to 210 55 42% 22% 2.13
211 to 240 56 50% 32% 2.79
241 to 270 69 35% 16% 1.68
271 to 300 58 40% 21% 2.29

First let’s deal with the implications for running clock 4th Downs and then we will get into defensive timeout usage on Downs 1-3.

 

4th Down

0:07 less remaining: If the opponent is outside their own 40-45 or so they should forgo punting for a Hail Mary play. An example of this can be seen in Week 10 of 2015 where the Houston Texans faced 3rd & 10 with 11 seconds remaining in the first half at their own 41 against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Texans ran for 3 yards and the Bengals called timeout with 6 seconds remaining in the half hoping the Texans would punt. The Texans recognized the Bengals mistake and attempted a Hail Mary pass. Although the Hail Mary was intercepted, it is clear that the Bengals put themselves in a negative freeroll situation. With less than about 7 seconds remaining it’s better to just let the half end if the opponent is outside their own 40.

If the opponent is inside their own 40 there’s not a very good chance they will be able to throw the ball to the end zone. A smart opponent who faces 4th down with five seconds or less in the half may choose to max protect and intentionally throw the ball out of bounds rather than risking a punt. An example of this can be seen from the Patriots in Week 12 of the 2015 Season from their own 38 with 5 seconds left in the half against the Broncos. This strategy is unlikely to lead to a score and the opponent may opt to punt, so calling timeout or not is a judgement call.

0:08 to 0:30 remaining: If the opponent is in Field Goal Attempt range and does not have a timeout it is best to allow the clock to run and hope the opponent is unable to get their Field Goal unit on the field in time.

If the opponent is outside of Field Goal Attempt range but inside our 50, it is usually best to just let the clock run unless the opponent faces a very long 4th Down. I’ll get into the nitty gritty of this particular situation from the offenses perspective in a future post.

If the opponent is on their own side of the field it is usually best to call timeout and force them to punt. Even though drives starting with less than 30 seconds remaining in the half rarely score, it is always possible to get a blocked punt or score on the punt return, and there’s little downside to forcing the punt.

0:31 to 2:00 remaining: Points Per Drive increases with time remaining up until Two to Three minutes remaining, so any running clock 4th down where you expect the opponent to either punt or attempt a Field Goal warrants an immediate timeout in this range. If the opponent is in a position to go for it on 4th Down (such as 4th & 1 on our 39) we may want to just let the clock run, as we do not want to save time for our opponents’ drive if they convert.

2:01 to 2:20 remaining: timeouts used on offense save about 16 seconds, so calling one with less than 2:16 remaining doesn’t make sense (as you are only saving the amount of time remaining until the Two Minute Warning.) Being able to choose when to use a timeout makes it a little bit more valuable than 16 seconds with this much time remaining, so it’s best to just wait until the Two Minute Warning.

2:21 or more remaining: Expected points per drive increases with time remaining up until about three minutes remaining, and then it flattens out. Calling timeout with more than three minutes remaining increases the risk that your own drive will end quickly and the opponent will have one more drive before the half, while not increasing your own chance of scoring, so it is a mistake to call timeouts too early. Calling timeout before an expected kick (Field Goal or Punt) with 3:20 or less and a running clock is reasonable but not mandatory.

1st-3rd Down

If the opponent is backed up (inside their own 15): There’s really no need to call timeouts ahead of the Two-Minute Warning after 1st or 2nd Down, as an immediate stop will force a punt that will probably net 40-50 yards. Two minutes is enough time for a drive that starts between Midfield and Own 40, and the data doesn’t suggest calling timeouts to save time at this point is necessary, even for drives starting on average slightly further back than this range. On the other hand, if your opponent does get a First Down, they still will likely be inside their own 25-30, so the extra time may be valuable for their drive.

If the opponent is near their own 25-35, then a punt will likely put us at our own 25-35. Because the field position we would get from a  stop is approximately equal to our opponents’ current field position, calling timeouts on Downs 1-3 under two minutes makes sense if our opponent has a less than 50% chance of gaining a first down. Using the table from our First Down Likelihood Post, we can see this corresponds to 2nd & 10 or more and 3rd & 5 or more. In a real game these probabilities would vary slightly depending on relative team strength, wind direction, kicker quality, and field position within that range, but this is the appropriate anchor point. Calling timeouts ahead of the Two-Minute Warning on Downs 1-3 is probably not advised unless the opponent is in a very poor down and distance situation (3rd & 20 for example).

If the opponent is between their own 36 and our 25 or so, it is probably never advisable to call timeout on 1st – 3rd down on defense except in very unfavorable down and distances. Even if we stop the opponent and force a punt we will likely be backed up following the punt, while a first down for our opponent following our timeouts would be a disaster if it left them time to attempt to score a Touchdown when the clock otherwise would have run out,  forcing a Field Goal Attempt. Because the cost of timeouts when the opponent achieves a first down is significantly greater than the benefits of saving time with a timeout, only very poor down and distances situations justify a timeout.

Once the opponent enters our 25, there reaches a point where their chance of running out of time is essentially zero. For instance, if the opponent has 1st & Goal at our 10 with two minutes remaining in the half and three timeouts, we should begin using our own timeouts, as it is extremely unlikely our opponent will run out of time. By calling timeouts, we can ensure getting the ball back with ~1:30 remaining in the half, whereas if we don’t call timeout our opponent can run down the clock it’s possible we don’t get the ball back at all before the half. Essentially, once  our opponent is close enough to our End Zone that they are not under any time pressure, we should focus on getting the ball back for our own drive with an optimal amount of time (2:00-3:00) before the half. With under 40 seconds or so it is unwise to call timeout before the half, as the value of a drive starting in your own territory with 0:30 or less remaining is essentially  zero and even if your opponent has timeouts there is some chance they mismanage the clock and cost themselves downs in the final 40 seconds of a half.

There are a a few unique constellations of situations I haven’t addressed here where this basic outline is suboptimal, but this should provide a basic theoretical baseline for evaluating timeout usage in end of half defensive situations. This is already running fairly long, but in a future post I’ll distill this information into a simple rule chart that would be easy for a team to implement.

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