The Moron’s Guide to Football – Episode 3: The Play-Action Pass

1. The Basics

The play-action pass is (mercifully) a much simpler topic than the first two in this series. Of course, as with all things NFL and football related, there are layers of nuance, wrinkles, and complications, but the basic principle is very simple.

A play action pass is a play where the quarterback drops back and acts as though they’re going to hand the ball off to the running back before keeping it and passing the ball. While this sounds simple, a well executed play-action pass play involves all members of the offense helping to sell the fake handoff before switching to a passing play. This means that the offensive linemen should initially appear as though they are run blocking, the RB should act like he’s about to hit the gap (see the previous entry in this series for more info about gaps), and even the receivers should initially fake as though they are run blocking before breaking into their routes.

The point of the play-action pass is to momentarily freeze the defense, or, in an ideal world, to get defenders moving the wrong way, to give an advantage to the offense and open up the opportunity to take a shot, usually deep down the field. The idea of misdirection and uncertainty has come up often in this series, and the play-action pass is yet another example of attempting to fool the opposing team to give yourself a slight edge.

If the fake handoff is sold effectively it should cause the defense to slightly contract down towards the line of scrimmage, anticipating helping to stop the run. Ideally, this allows a wide receiver (usually on the outside) to run a route down the field with more separation than usual from the opposing cornerback as the play action is designed to buy them a free step or two on the defender. When effectively executed it will also pull linebackers toward the line of scrimmage, opening up passing avenues and empty zones in the intermediate game.

Unlike the read option or run-pass option (RPO), the QB never actually hands the ball off on a play-action passing play. The play-action pass – as the name suggests – is always designed as a passing play. This adds pressure to the receiver (or receivers) to win their routes, as the entire play is designed to give them an advantage and if they can’t get open the QB really has very few other options (though throwing the ball away is certainly preferable to taking a massive sack, Kirk).

2. The NFL Today

The play-action pass is a staple of many offenses around the NFL, and every team uses some form of play-action at least occasionally. Play-action, however, is something that Offensive Coordinators need to be careful not to draw up too often, as its foundation is trickery and unexpectedness. If a team runs play-action too often, then opposing defenses will simply stop biting on the run. Like everything in the NFL this creates a bit of a chess match, and some of the best teams (including the Vikes) at running play-action also have ferocious rushing attacks in their own right, which keeps the defense honest.

This year in the NFL the Los Angeles Rams have run play-action the most in the league. By a lot. A big part of this, in my opinion, is the lack of development from Jared Goff. We’ve discussed McVay’s offense previously in this series, and his use of motion and what football fans lovingly call trickeration are designed to reveal the opposing defense’s game plan and simplify the game for Goff. Play-action works much the same way. The entire offense sells the fake and then Goff needs to only make one read before unloading the football.

Of the 552 passes Goff attempted this season, 172 of them have been play-action passes. This means that the Rams are running play-action on a whopping 31% of Goff’s pass attempts. They have the receivers (Robert Woods is a speedster and Cooper Kupp is Greg Olsen-esque in his ability to always be open) to make play-action work, and their RBs this year have had a decent amount of success.

That being said, when Todd Gurley was tearing up the league for them (before his knees tore him up, unfortunately), no matter how often they used play-action teams simply could not afford to sell out against the pass because Gurley was always a threat to take it to the house. Sound familiar? It should, because the Vikes have an enormous amount of success with play-action for the exact same reason.

Who relies on play-action the least in the league? Of every game starters at quarterback this season, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson have used play-action the least, with Watson only attempting 69 play-action passes and Jackson attempting 75. Both Watson and Jackson are mobile quarterbacks (with Jackson pejoratively being called a glorified running back coming out of college), and as a result, their teams rely a lot more on read option and RPO plays. When you’ve got one of those two under centre you don’t need to fake a run with the RB since the QB is already a threat to take off on any given play and the read option and RPO give them the best chance at creating the numbers mismatches that are oh-so-important in the NFL.

Other teams that rarely use play action, but for entirely different reasons, are the Steelers, Saints, Jets, and the Dalton-led Cowboys. Sam Darnold and the Jets are the obvious outlier here, and I’m going to exclude them from this analysis because the team was run by this guy. Of the other three teams, including the Dalton Cowboys, they have all used play-action less this season than the Cowboys with Dak Prescott at the helm, despite him only playing in 5 games. These teams have immobile, but highly experienced quarterbacks at the helm and, unlike a team such as Tampa Bay, none of these offenses (at least this year) are built on the deep pass. Instead of play-action, these teams rely on allowing the QB to keep his eyes on the defense, call out protections, and then distribute the ball based on their post-snap reads.

3. Skol!

As hinted at above, the Vikings looooooove play-action. Not only does it fit perfectly with Zimmer’s overall philosophy of keeping the other team guessing, but it perfectly fits Kirk Cousins’s skillset and the Vikings personnel.

The Vikings have run play-action the tenth most out of any team in the league this year, with Cousins attempting 111 play-action passes. Cousins has attempted 476 passes this year, meaning they’re running play-action on about a quarter of his pass attempts (23.3%). For me, and this is entirely subjective, this is right about the sweet spot for play-action.

Not only do the Vikings love running play-action, but they’ve had a great deal of success with it. On the 111 play-action pass attempts this year, Cousins has amassed 1101 yards, good for 7th most in the league and averaging 10 yards per play-action attempt. Though 10 yards per attempt may not sound like a league-crushing number, the success on play-action helps keep defenses honest, and has contributed to Dalvin Cook’s monster season. Also, Cousins’ overall yards/attempt this season is 8, meaning that play-action is more successful than your average passing play.

Let’s take a look at how the Vikings have had so much success with play-action. First, I want to look at a play that didn’t work. Here’s a play from week 16 against the cheeseheads last season. One important note is that Dalvin Cook was out for this game.

Why did the play-action not work here? Well, one obvious reason is that Cousins chucks the ball to a receiver in double coverage who’s not even a little open. Classic Cousins hero-ball move. Also, the throw was late. After the play-action fake, Cousins holds the ball way too long before making the ill-advised pass. What makes this particular play extra frustrating is that Cousins sees that the route isn’t open and that’s why he holds the ball. He realizes the defense didn’t bite (at all!) on the fake and instead of throwing the ball he holds it. So far so good. But then, feeling like he needs to make something happen, Cousins chucks the ball late into double coverage anyway. I like Cousins and think the Vikes are right to stick with him, but these sort of throws every game or two make me want to throw my TV out the window.

The other reason this play doesn’t work, as hinted at above, is that the GB defense plays disciplined and doesn’t bite on the run-fake. As you can see, the linebackers keep their eyes on the ball the entire time and none of them abandon their assignment. Likewise, the corners stay with their receivers, trusting everyone to do their job. And they do. Also, because Green Bay is playing a two-deep zone here, it makes play-action less likely to work, since the defenders are responsible for a section of the field rather than a particular offensive player. This makes it much harder to get the safeties and corners to cheat up to the line to stop the run.

Alright, enough negativity. Let’s take a look at a couple of successful play-action passes to stand-out rookie Justin Jefferson from this season against the Texans. It’s also important to note that unlike the previous example, Dalvin Cook was indeed in this game and having him on the field goes a long way towards making sure defense’s respect the run.

The first clip is just a perfectly executed play. All the Texans linebackers take several steps toward the line of scrimmage, anticipating the hand off to Cook. Then, about 3 seconds into the clip, you can see the entire Texans defense collectively have an, “Oh crap!” moment as they realize Cook doesn’t have the ball. Two of the linebackers turn their backs to the line of scrimmage and just start sprinting downfield, but it’s too late, Jefferson has run away from everyone and found the soft spot in the zone opened up by the successful fake to Dalvin. In addition, Adam Thielen runs straight upfield, pulling the safeties deep with him. This allows Jefferson to come across the formation into a completely open area of the field (he starts his route at the top of the clip).

The second play in the clip is actually the same as the first one, but Thielen and Jefferson have switched routes. Instead of running the slant across the field, Jefferson runs an out route, initially running up field before breaking to the outside. As in the first clip, the linebacker’s bite just as badly on the play-fake (and you can even see a few of them give up on the play when they realized they’ve been had yet again), but the coverage downfield is better. Thielen still draws attention away from Jefferson, which is a great call by Kubiak since last time they ran this play it went to the guy running the route Thielen runs this time. Jefferson ends up 1-on-1 and makes a great cut to the outside and is wide open for the pass from Cousins and the safety simply doesn’t have time to get over to help due to the play design and Thielen’s great route.

Editor’s Note: The last two clips are via Football Outsiders. The Vikings Gazette does not host or own the copyright for these clips.

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