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Harnessing the Power of Play-Action

One of football’s most intuitive concepts has been dramatically dialed up this season. For the Vikings, Rams, and Eagles—and each of their breakout quarterbacks—it’s made all the difference.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL is barreling toward a playoff picture that no one would’ve been able to imagine back in August. Entering Week 13, both the Packers (5-6) and Seahawks (7-4) are on the outside looking in. A postseason lacking Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson might seem shocking, but what’s more shocking may be the quarterbacks who are set to replace them in the NFC field. Jared Goff, Case Keenum, and Carson Wentz are all piloting teams in the mix for first-round byes, and each looks drastically different than he did in 2016.

Coaching changes, personnel upgrades, and year-to-year development have all played a role in these quarterbacks’ respective transformations, and all have been cited in explaining the recent success of their teams. Yet among that jumble of factors exists one unifying thread that’s contributed to their breakouts: All three are among the league leaders in play-action rate. The use of play-action—and the effect it can have on an offense—has emerged as a central theme of the 2017 season, and nowhere has it been more evident than in the unexpected efficiency of the Rams, Vikings, and Eagles.

Among quarterbacks who’ve played at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps this fall, Keenum leads the NFL in percentage of dropbacks to include play-action (28.7 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. Goff is second at 27.8 percent, and Wentz is fourth at 27.5. Last year, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan was the only passer with a similar percentage (27.6).

It’s no coincidence that some of the league’s most overachieving offenses have heavily relied on play-action. The tactic has long been used to make quarterbacks’ lives easier, and this season, a handful of staffs have been willing to use it more often. The benefits of this approach, and the flaws with previous thinking surrounding play-action’s limitations, have been plain to see.

Most play-action throws have a straightforward goal: By feigning a handoff, offenses hope to entice defenders into biting on the fake, thereby creating wider windows into which quarterbacks can throw. This most frequently works when linebackers commit to charging the line of scrimmage at the first sign of a run, thus vacating the middle of the field and allowing passers to drop throws in front of the safety. Take this play from the Vikings’ 34-17 win over the Buccaneers in Week 3:

Adam Thielen

Because Tampa Bay linebacker Kendell Beckwith takes two steps forward, Keenum is left with an ocean of grass between him and receiver Adam Thielen. With the Bucs lined up in Cover 3 and corner Vernon Hargreaves III playing the deep third of the field, Keenum doesn’t even need to make a perfectly accurate throw; as long as he tosses the ball in Thielen’s vicinity, this is probably going to be a completion. To wit, Thielen corrals a pass that’s slightly off target, picking up 11 yards in the process.

This is how play-action helps quarterbacks at its most basic level, and it shows up again and again throughout Keenum’s tape this season. On this first-quarter play from Minnesota’s 30-23 win over the Lions last Thursday, Keenum’s pass comes this close to nicking Detroit safety Tavon Wilson’s finger, and that’s following a fake that pulls Wilson up toward the line of scrimmage. The end result is similar to Thielen’s nice grab against the Bucs. Asking any cornerback—even one as talented as Darius Slay—to play off coverage against the Vikings’ pair of starting receivers without help underneath is just cruel.

Case Keenum

The difference between Keenum’s numbers with and without play-action this year is jarring. When using a play fake, he is completing 70.2 percent of his passes and averaging 9.9 yards per attempt to go with a 119.7 passer rating, the second-best mark among quarterbacks who’ve taken at least 75 percent of their team’s dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus. On traditional passes, Keenum’s completion percentage drops to 64.4 percent with an average of 6.5 yards per attempt and an 86.9 passer rating. The types of throws above are a huge reason.

Both the Eagles and Rams feature plenty of standard play-action throws in their schemes as well, but a good portion of their offensive success comes from using play fakes to open up every area of the field. Los Angeles coach Sean McVay loves setting up downfield shots via play-action, which is a good reminder that linebackers and overanxious pass rushers aren’t the only defenders targeted in these scenarios. Take this Robert Woods catch from the Rams’ 41-39 victory over the 49ers in Week 3:

Robert Woods

The Rams are going after Niners cornerback K’Waun Williams, who’s in man coverage on Woods. As Woods comes off the line, he breaks down as if he’s going to engage Williams as a blocker. The receiver’s slight hesitation works in concert with Goff’s play fake, which is enough to get Williams flat-footed. Woods then bursts open down the sideline for a 21-yard gain.

On plays like this (and Wentz’s beautiful touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery on a run-pass option against Denver in Week 9), a play-action fake works because it fools one cornerback. In some instances, though, it can spin an entire defense around. The way both McVay and Eagles head coach Doug Pederson can twist up opponents with play-action screen designs has led to a ton of easy completions and huge gains for their young quarterbacks.

The Rams love to manipulate defenses horizontally with wide play fakes in the red zone, and Goff’s touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins in a 33-7 rout of Houston from Week 10 is an ideal example. By the time Goff releases the ball, Texans linebacker Benardrick McKinney has moved from the hash mark on one side of the field to the other. With big ol’ Andrew Whitworth out in front, this turns into an easy score.

Sammy Watkins

The flashy parts of what make this touchdown effective are obvious. Goff and running back Todd Gurley both sell the fake hard, Watkins is dynamic in the open field, and Whitworth’s mobility and ridiculous finish seal the deal. The quieter aspects of the play are equally well-executed, though, and those are the ones that can go overlooked in a basic analysis of what makes a play-action game so potent.

Outside-zone fakes, which involve the entire offensive line stepping in the same direction in unison as the back aims for the tackle’s outside shoulder, are brutally effective precursors to play-action throws. The movement is so dramatic that a sell is inherently built in, and it’s made more devastating when the offensive linemen are fully committed to the farce. Check out Whitworth’s right foot in that clip above. In taking that initial flat step by bolting back outside, he adds one more layer of deception for the Houston defense to sift through.

With all the benefits that play-action has brought teams like the Eagles, Rams, and Vikings this season, it would stand to reason that other teams should be following suit en masse. But that isn’t happening. And part of the explanation lies in that step by Whitworth—and in the complications that come with changing the mind-set around play-action throws.

Play-action usage has remained relatively uniform over the past decade or so. The league average on dropbacks typically hovers around 21 percent, per Football Outsiders, with a few outliers approaching or surpassing 30 percent. There were a number of exceptions about five years ago, when the read-option revolution ushered in a massive spike for a small pocket of NFL teams. In 2012, four (Washington, Seattle, Minnesota, and Carolina) used play-action on at least 33 percent of their dropbacks, with Washington finishing at a ridiculous 42 percent clip. During Robert Griffin III’s rookie campaign, play-action was a way of life, and the results were spectacular. Only the Peyton Manning–led Broncos averaged more yards per pass on play-action that season, and Washington averaged a ludicrous 4.6 yards per play more on dropbacks that included play-action than on those that didn’t. Griffin and then-offensive-coordinator Kyle Shanahan combined to form the NFL’s version of the modern-day Houston Rockets—they had an almost dogmatic commitment to exploiting a perceived inefficiency.

As the read-option transitioned from a foundation of some NFL offenses to another wrinkle, though, play-action rates fell below even their previous standard. In 2015, the average NFL team used play-action looks on just 19 percent of its dropbacks. Last season, that figure fell to 18 percent. And the reasons for the dip are myriad.

To begin with, for as much as our understanding of the sport has shifted in recent years, the belief that a play-action game’s effectiveness is linked to a strong, high-usage running offense has remained steadfast. The Eagles and Vikings rank second and third in rushing percentage in 2017, and the Rams (eighth) aren’t all that far behind. Jacksonville has run more often any team in football, so it’s not surprising to see Blake Bortles check in at sixth in play-action rate (25.3 percent). With more teams eschewing the run game and embracing smaller personnel groupings and shotgun formations, the factors that would lead to frequent play-action looks have become a rarity. And while the Patriots have been able to maintain an effective play-action balance despite minimizing their rushing attempts, not every team has been so lucky. New England runs on only 38.1 percent of its plays, but that number jumps to 52.2 percent on first down, giving credence to early-down use of play-action and allowing Tom Brady to be masterful on those throws (70.6 completion percentage and 9.2 yards per attempt).

It’s also impossible to overstate the rigidity that exists within NFL coaching circles. Some playbooks include only a handful of tacked-on play-action concepts that occasionally aren’t even linked to the team’s collection of running plays. Where Shanahan’s outside-zone offenses (and that of the Rams, whose staffers worked closely with the now–49ers head coach in Washington and Atlanta) feature bootlegs and wrinkles off play-action, teams lacking that section of the playbook have to mine less conducive concepts for play-action results.

Finally, there’s the offensive line element. Conventional wisdom suggests that play-action passes take longer to develop than many other plays, although that should be countered by the initial movements of the offensive linemen causing defenders to anchor down and delay their pass rush. Yet play-action can create vulnerabilities in pass protection from time to time. The potential for disaster is high when linemen are asked to attack defenders directly after the snap, especially when they don’t have any help on the play.

Another issue is the backside edge rusher. In a lot of cases, that player will go completely unblocked. In others, a tight end such as Tyler Higbee will be asked to block a guy like Jadeveon Clowney. That can go about as well as you might assume:

Jadeveon Clowney

Figuring out these issues requires ingenuity and a healthy dose of creative problem-solving. Many teams reliant on outside-zone action will bring their tight end across the formation to seal the backside, a tactic that Shanahan’s offenses have repeatedly employed over the years. Sometimes, teams use even cleverer wrinkles. The Vikings, for instance, will have center Pat Elflein loop back around to take care of linebackers, as he did against Washington’s Preston Smith in Week 10. At times, a pulling lineman sealing the back side serves to further sell the run fake by playing with a linebacker’s keys and creating more misdirection and mass confusion.

The reason that teams like Minnesota have solutions to these potential headaches is that they’ve seen the overwhelming success that play-action can bring. For the Vikings, Rams, and Eagles, the play-action game isn’t just an obligatory section of the playbook; it’s as one of the pillars of their identity. It’s who these offenses are, and how they’ve turned Keenum, Goff, and Wentz into three of the league’s most compelling stories.

One of football’s most intuitive concepts has been elevated into a staple for some of the league’s most innovative coaches. And during a season that’s defied expectations at every turn, it’s put this trio of teams in position to make some serious noise come January.