Play action creates some of the league's most exciting plays as a quarterback pulls the football from the gut of the running back having successfully sold the fake run to the defense.
Offensive coordinators love to have punishing play action pass plays in their back pocket ready to catch a defense out, and those with a strong run game are even more capable of utilizing those plays. For example, the combination of Derrick Henry at running back and AJ Brown at wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans sparked some of the league's most exciting play action plays in recent years.
So what is play action, and how should it be used?
What is Play Action in Football?
A Play Action pass is a football play designed to look like a run but is actually a pass play. The concept is drawn up to deceive the defense into defending what they believe is a run play. The quarterback drops back as if to hand the football off to his running back, but holds onto it, bootlegs around and looks for an open wide receiver downfield.
Teams will run play action passes when they believe they have successfully established the run against the opposition's defense. The defense are then aware of the strength of the run game and the need to defend it, and so a play action pass can catch the defense off guard if well timed and well executed.
What makes a good Play Action Pass?
The entire offense has to sell the play as if it was a run play in order for it to work, and if done correctly play action passes can result in big gains or touchdowns. The more the offense can deceive the defense into attacking the line of scrimmage to defend a run play, the more opportunity there is for a big pass play downfield.
Play action passes are designed to suck the defenders in towards the line of scrimmage in anticipation of a run play. The quarterback needs to drop back with the football and motion as if he’s handing the football off to his running back. If the defense is sold on that movement, the linebackers and safeties will press towards the line of scrimmage leaving space behind them.
Play action passes typically involve wide receivers running routes that expose the space left behind the linebackers such as crossing routes and drag routes over the middle of the field.
The quarterback holds onto the football without handing it off and tucks it back into his stomach for a moment as he bootlegs around to look downfield for an open receiver.
The offensive line's role in a play action pass is just as important. The line will come off the snap in run protection, but switch to pass protecting very quickly.
When is the best time to call a Play Action Pass?
Anytime that a play action pass might catch the defense off guard is a great time to run one.
If a team has successfully established the run during a game, play action can be very effective. A great run game requires a commitment from the defense to defend it, and in doing so the defense can over commit if they see the run coming.
In a game of inches, forcing the linebackers to step up just for a second can leave multiple receivers open behind them down the field. The linebackers are forced into recovery and can be left scrambling to try and make up the space as the quarterback exploits it.
Short yardage situations throughout an offensive drive can be effective because a third and one situation often results in a run play, meaning that is what the defense expects to see. Offensive coordinators will call play action in glaring run heavy circumstances in order to help sell the idea of a run, including goal line situations and plays in the red zone. The more the defense expects to see a run play, the more effective a play action pass can be.
Some offenses in professional football run play action a lot more depending on the personnel on the roster. Typically the highest percentage teams will run between 30 and 40% play action passes.
What are some common Play Action Pass Concepts?
The double post is a popular play action pass because it’s a deep shot with multiple options that the defense might not be expecting. The offense sets up with two wide receivers on the quarterback's front side, with both guys running identical post routes attacking the deep field.
The play action allows the deep routes to develop as the quarterback drops back, fakes the hand off and spins out to his blindside to survey the field. While he’s doing that, the receivers are going deep, and with two routes available, the concept gambles on one of them getting open.
Having two players run deep against man coverage or a single high safety makes for a favorable matchup. The quarterback just needs one of his receivers to beat his man and if there is a deep safety, he isn’t able to offer coverage support to both receivers.
A well placed football deep down the field can mean a big play touchdown for the offense. The double post is the offense taking that chance at trying to catch the defense off guard, which can be very effective.
Bubble Y Over
The Bubble Y Over is run out of a spread offense and offers a minimum of four passing options. The running back sets to take the snap at an angle as if to set up an outside run, and as the fake is set up, he continues his run towards the sideline on a swing route.
The slot receiver on the opposite side to the running backs route runs the bubble, which is a very short route towards the opposite sideline, giving the quarterback a quick option on both sides of the field. The two short routes force defenders to come down hill to cover, and the three remaining receivers all run deeper routes down the field.
The quarterback has two deep routes outside the numbers, and if the defense commits to the run or loses coverage trying to pick up either of the short routes, they could leave themselves exposed and a wide receiver open downfield.
The backside receiver runs a go route, while the opposite side receiver runs a post route towards the middle of the field, attacking the safety. The slot receiver on the same side runs a crossing route as the two try to once again split the safety help and create separation against the coverage.
Play Action Pass vs Run Pass Option
The difference between the two plays is that a Play Action Pass is designed to always be a pass, whereas the Run Pass Option can turn into either a run or pass depending on the reaction of the defense.
A run pass option, commonly known as an ‘RPO’, is a play that features both a run and a passing option, with the quarterback controlling the decision after the snap of the football.
The QB will go to hand off the football to his running back unless he sees the passing route come open, at which point he pulls the football back and fires it out. The pass play in an RPO is a quick pass, and has to be because of the speed the play develops at. There are only two options in a play action pass, and the quarterback has to quickly decide whether the running back takes the football or he himself fires it out to the now open receiver.
Play action passes are significantly different because they are never actually run plays, they’re just designed to look that way to the defense. In a play action pass play, all options are pass options. The quarterback wouldn’t hand the football off to the running back, and the running back isn’t expecting him too either. The offense just has to sell it that way so the defense believes it, and they can then exploit the gaps and pick up some big yards.
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