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Play-action passing is, in large part, a cheat code.

In today’s National Football League, with the large amount of data available at our fingertips, teams pour through both film and data to try and find an edge any way they can. One of the aspects to the offensive game that is becoming more apparent is the benefits of the play-action passing game. 

One of my personal favorite days of each offseason is the day affectionately termed “play-action day” over at Football Outsiders. Usually in June or so they release the play-action passing numbers in terms of their defense-adjusted value over average, or DVOA. Each year they measure a teams DVOA in terms of play-action, and non play-action plays. Here are last year’s findings

As you can see, 19 of the league’s 32 teams were more effective throwing on play-action designs than they were on non play-action plays. Interestingly enough, the Chicago Bears were in the minority who saw a dip in DVOA from play-action to traditional dropback passing plays. But for the majority of teams their offense executed better when they were using play-action. The top team? Your Super Bowl Champions. The New England Patriots saw a boost of 59.9 percent in their DVOA when using play-action versus dropping Tom Brady straight into the pocket on a standard passing play.

Now why is this? Conventional wisdom tells us that teams that have success running the football will therefore be more successful using play-action, given that the fear of a strong running game will cause defenders to bite down and react to run fakes. Yet the data does not entirely support that proposition. After all, the Patriots were just 18th in the league in yards per rushing attempt, averaging just 4.3 yards per carry in 2018. The Carolina Panthers, who led the league with 5.1 yards per rushing attempt, were actually one of the teams that saw a dip in DVOA from play-action to traditional passing plays. 

So it goes beyond just having a successful running game. For a team to be successful working off play-action two other factors need to be present: Personnel and execution.

We can start with the San Francisco 49ers. Through five weeks of the 2019 season the 49ers are the league’s best rushing team, averaging 200 yards per game on the ground. They also average 5.2 yards per carry, which is sixth-best in the league. So the ground game is working for them. 

But this success is just part of what is enabling Jimmy Garoppolo to be successful in the play-action passing game so far. Another critical element is how Kyle Shanahan sets up the play-action passing game using personnel. Of San Francisco’s 202 offensive plays so far this season 72 , or 36%, have come out of 21 personnel. This is by large measure the tops in the league, and the 49ers are the only team above 30%. The Patriots, who have used 21 personnel second-most in the league, are running it 27% of the time.

What this personnel package does is dictate to the defense what their personnel should be in response. If you are a defensive coordinator facing a team coming out with two running backs, a tight end and two wide receivers, you will likely expect run (especially when your opposition is running the ball better than anyone) and you will respond with your base defense to try and stop the run.

But if you look deeper into these personnel usage numbers, you will see that when the 49ers throw out of 21 personnel, they are successful 73% of the time. Garoppolo has completed 16 of 20 passes out of 21 personnel for a yards per attempt of 12.6, an average of 10.8 air yards per attempt, two touchdowns (against one interception) and a passer rating of 131.3. Those are Garoppolo’s best numbers out of any personnel package this season and it tops his overall passer rating of 100.9 by over 30 points. 

Not that passer rating is the world’s one and only stat for measuring quarterback play, but that is a pretty big improvement. 

But here is how that personnel package can influence defenses. On this play against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 49ers have this 21 personnel package in the game. Garoppolo (#10) aligns under center and the offense puts their running backs in the I formation, with an inverted slot alignment on the left side of the field:

As you can see, the Steelers keep their base 3-4 defense on the field, with four linebackers, three down linemen and four defensive backs.

For a bit of context to this play, it comes late in the third quarter of a 13-10 game, which finds the 49ers trailing. It is a 1st and 10 situation. But Shanahan uses his 21 personnel package to dictate the defensive personnel, and now he gets to throw against the defense he was hoping to attack:

This is essentially a two receiver route concept, with Marquise Goodwin (#11) running a post route while Deebo Samuel (#19) runs a dig route. The fullback does release late in the play after blocking, but he is not really involved in this route design. Now watch as the second level defenders bite down violently in response to the run action, giving Garoppolo a huge throwing lane to find Samuel on the dig route:

The end zone angle illustrates perfectly what the quarterback sees on this play:

This is basically throwing a route against air, like Garoppolo expects to see in practice. But instead it comes late in the third quarter of a one-score game.

Speaking of the fullback. Kyle Juszczyk (#44) might not be the most critical element of the 49ers’ offense — despite what some color analysts believe — but Shanahan certainly involves him in the passing game when San Francisco uses this 21 personnel package. One of their favorite designs is “Leak,” and it is something that Shanahan has been using for years. Here is an example of this design from a few seasons ago against the Jacksonville Jaguars:

That play comes from December 2017. Here is that same concept in Week 3 against the Steelers:

Two receivers curl deep down the field to occupy the secondary, and the fullback leaks along the left side of the field and becomes a target in the vertical passing game.

So Shanahan uses personnel to help the passing game by getting his offense a base defense to throw against. But execution is also another component of the success. Both of these plays displayed great execution on the offensive side of the football, including a great catch from Juszczyk on the vertical route. Other teams beyond the 49ers are having success in the play-action passing game thanks to execution rather than — or in addition to — personnel.

A few weeks ago, I broke down the Minnesota Vikings and their play-action passing game and how they structure it off of their outside and wide zone running games. Last week, Minnesota even used their outside zone running game to set up their screen game. On this 2nd and 8 play, the Vikings put 22 offensive personnel in the game: One wide receiver, two tight ends and two running backs. New York, given the down and distance, responds with a 4-2-5 nickel package looking to stop the pass:

Minnesota shows the wide zone but then Kirk Cousins (#8) boots back to the right. You might think this is their standard play-action boot design broken down in the previous piece, but instead they are setting up a throwback screen to Dalvin Cook (#33), who Cousins faked the handoff too:

This is a perfect design and a well-executed play. Watch how the Vikings sell this, from the blocking up front, to Cook carrying out the fake and then slow-playing the screen element, to Cousins himself staring down Ameer Abdullah (#31) on the crosser before pivoting and throwing the screen, to Abdullah himself waving for the football:

This is the execution element of using the running game to help set up the passing game. 

Good execution in the play-action passing game can make these plays effective, even if you are struggling to run the football. When the Giants had the ball last week they managed just 64 yards on the ground, and were playing with their third-string running back when Wayne Gallman went down in the first half with an injury. But they were still able to create throwing lanes for rookie Daniel Jones on play-action designs.

Take this play, a 1st and 10 situation from early in the third quarter. The Giants trail 18-7 and face a first down on their own 36-yard line. They line up with a jumbo 12 offensive personnel package that uses reserve offensive lineman Nick Gates (#65) as a tight end, and he aligns in a wing to the right. They have Jones (#8) under center. Minnesota responds with their base 4-3 defense and they crowd the box, expecting run:

Yet the Giants are going to throw the ball, using a dual curls concept often termed “both runback:”

In fact, “both runback” is what Shanahan terms this concept, and if you look back at the leak design where Garoppolo hits the fullback out of the backfield, the 49ers are running this concept.

The Giants show a split zone running design, with running back Jonathan Hilliman (#28) aiming for the left side of the line and tight end Rhett Ellison (#85) showing a sift block across the formation. They catch the Vikings in man coverage, and this movement up front sells the run action, giving Jones a huge throwing lane:

Again, this is like throwing routes on air:

Personnel and execution gives the quarterback a very easy throwing lane.

Let’s just close this out by looking at one more play from Week 5, this play-action design from the Arizona Cardinals. On this play Kyler Murray (#1) is in the pistol and the Cardinals use a 20 offensive personnel package, with two running backs in the backfield and three wide receivers. Larry Fitzgerald (#11) aligns on the inside in an inverted slot to the right:

To set the context, this is a 2nd and 14 from late in the first half. The Cincinnati Bengals have their 4-2-5 defense in the game. Everything about this situation screams pass, but watch what happens to the linebackers when Murray fakes a handoff:

This run action gets the linebackers to take just a few steps downhill in response to a potential run. Even though the situation screams pass, the execution of the run fake sucks thim in just enough to give Fitzgerald the angle, and he gets behind the linebackers for an easy pitch-and-catch.

Personnel and execution can make the play-action passing game a cheat code for your quarterback. The personnel piece is perhaps a great starting point for an offense. Consider these words a jumping off point:

For those wondering, and the majority of you probably are, the Bears have used 11 offensive personnel on 60% of their offensive snaps. 12 offensive personnel, a two tight end package, has been utilized 15% of the time, and they have used 21 offensive personnel also 15% of the time.

Something to think about as a bye week looms...

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This article originally ran on profootballweekly.com.

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