FOXBOROUGH — With the NFL pushing the line of scrimmage for a point-after-touchdown kick back to the 15-yard line, what had been a foregone conclusion now has become a more competitive play, precisely as the league had hoped.
Through three weeks, there have been more PAT misses (13) than all of last season, when kickers combined to go 1,222 for 1,230.
Even from the longer distance, kickers are still successful at a clip of 94.5 percent (226 of 239), and 20 of the league’s 32 teams are perfect on the season, including the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, who is 14 of 14. Gostkowski, in fact, broke the league record for consecutive PATs made during Sunday’s 51-17 win over the Jaguars. He now has made 425 straight.
But the longer PAT has brought another competitive play into the mix. The 2-point conversion try, which had been a novelty play often used only when the score called for it, is becoming more mainstream.
Already this season, there have been 12 successful 2-point conversions in 25 attempts. There were 28 successful 2-point tries all of last season, so if the current pace holds, there will be 64 this season.
The Patriots have yet to try a 2-point play — they were 0 for 1 last season — but they’ve faced three 2-point tries on defense, and stopped the opposition twice.
How important can the 2-point play be? Consider the Patriots’ 40-32 win at Buffalo on Sept. 20. The Bills trailed by 24 points in the fourth quarter, and scored three touchdowns.
Had they tried for 2 points after all three scores and been successful, the game would have been tied, 37-37. The Bills only tried two 2-point attempts, and the Patriots stopped both.
“Those 2 points really matter. They did [in Buffalo]. Everything counts,” said Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler.
It’s been a defensive play for the Patriots when opponents (the Steelers did it once) went for 2 points, not a special teams play. So the defensive personnel took the field, hoping that the film study of an opponent’s tendencies on short-yardage and goal-line situations — the 2-point try comes from the 2-yard line — will allow them to get the better of the important matchup.
“It depends on the offense, the different philosophies and different styles of how they play down in the red area. Everybody’s different,” said linebacker Dont’a Hightower. “Some people have maybe one or two runs and three passes to choose from, other people have a whole list on their playsheet.
“It’s just something, you can’t always prep for, but you’ve got to be ready.”
A closer look at the three 2-point plays the Patriots have faced so far:
■ After scoring a touchdown that cut the Patriots’ lead to 21-9 in the third quarter, the Steelers lined up with two wide receivers plus tight end Heath Miller on the right side, receiver Antonio Brown on the left side, and running back DeAngelo Williams in the backfield to the right of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was awaiting a shotgun snap.
The Patriots sent out five defensive backs, with safety Devin McCourty helping Butler on Brown, and leaving Patrick Chung, Bradley Fletcher, and Tarell Brown in man-to-man coverage. It must be the look the Steelers wanted, because Roethlisberger hit Markus Wheaton on a slant route, with Brown in coverage. The try was successful, cutting the lead to 21-11. The Patriots went on to win, 28-21.
■ The next week at Buffalo, the Bills scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter to make it 37-19, and lined up almost exactly the same way Pittsburgh did: three receivers to the right, one receiver left, a running back in the backfield with a quarterback awaiting the shotgun snap. Once again, McCourty was helping the cornerback on the single receiver (in this case, Brown covering Sammy Watkins).
Instead of a slant route, Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor rolled right and tried to hit Percy Harvin near the goal line. With Butler in tight coverage, the pass went off Harvin’s hands and fell incomplete.
■ Another touchdown brought the Bills within 37-25, and on this 2-point attempt they kept the tight end next to the right tackle, with a pair of receivers right and one left.
This alignment was met by a different Patriots’ look. Five defensive backs were on the field — same as before — but Chung was near the line of scrimmage. Two linebackers — Hightower and Jamie Collins — were deep, ready for either the run or the pass.
It ended up being a run. Harvin went in motion, and after receiving a flip-handoff from Taylor, tried to score on an end-around. But McCourty was waiting for him, and as he went in for the tackle just inside the 5-yard line, Harvin slipped. Try stopped.
The Patriots are on their bye this week so they won’t face a 2-point play. Dallas, the next opponent, has yet to try one. But more teams are going for 2 more often, so it’s one more thing the Patriots will have to prepare for.
“It’s more situational. If a team is down, what do they have to lose?” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “You always have to take every play very seriously, and 2-point conversions, you have to do a great job and not let them get those 2 points, which at the end of the game could help them.”
Said Butler: “I expect teams to go for it. People go for it on fourth and 2 from the 50. One chance from the 2-yard line to get 2 points? There’s a good chance teams will go for it. We have to be ready.”