To run believable play-action plays, a semi-effective run game is a necessity.
At least that’s what I’ve always heard.
Call me a play-action skeptic, though. Even against pretty good run teams, if an offense has a quarterback who can throw and targets who can catch, I’d rather my linebackers and safeties take more risks against the run in front of them than the receivers potentially behind them.
So, at least in some situations, I’d tell defenders, “Don’t play run until you’re sure it’s run.”
I know it’s not that simple, that in decision-making every fraction of a second can be crucial, that aggressive defenders are eager to head for the line of scrimmage and blow up a play or get to the ball-carrier.
Still, I started asking more play-action questions after seeing the play-action passing numbers of two AFC South quarterbacks.
Matt Schaub has the league’s most productive running back in Arian Foster, and Schaub has a 94.8 passer rating on play-action throws, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Peyton Manning’s Colts have the worst-ranked run game in the NFL, and his play-action rating is 105.3.
Manning, of course, is regarded as a play-action master, running precise and perfect fakes on plays that look exactly the same as Indianapolis running plays.
Still, if he can do that with a terrible run game and Ben Roethlisberger can post a 77.5 with the league’s eighth-best run game, is effective play-action really linked to an effective run game as we’ve always been made to believe?
“I can’t explain the numbers part,” Jacksonville offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “Other than how your offense sells it, I think there are just linebackers and different safeties as you go through your scouting report that just bite more than others. We always have a guy or two targeted each week where we say, 'OK, this guy will bite play-action.' Where Gary Brackett over the years we’ve played him, he’s hard to get.”
During the offseason, I talked with Schaub about play-action, and he said he couldn’t believe how well the 2009 Texans had done with run-fakes, because they ran so poorly.
So the Texans encapsulate my play-action confusion. In 2009, they ranked 30th running the ball and Schaub posted a 130.4 passer rating on play-action throws. Now they are tied for 10th running it. With his team up 20 spots in rushing, Schaub’s play-action work should be as good or better, not nearly 36 points worse.
Titans safety Chris Hope said the quality of a play-action fake is determined mostly by the scheme and the mindset of the offense running it and their salesmanship. But ultimately it’s not the offense determining the effectiveness, it’s the defense.
He’ll study film and see a play-action pass out of a set from which the team never runs. So he’s never going to read it as a run when he recognizes it in a game. Even the Colts have one he noticed, a counter or trap where they have not handed the ball off out of a certain formation. (If Manning is somehow reading this, I bet he goes and finds it now.)
“The biggest thing is the defense has to buy what you’re trying to sell them,” Hope said. “On Peyton, I’ve seen where the play-action looks just like the actual run play. He does the same mechanics, identical. Some teams run play-action passes but they aren’t selling anything where they normally run...”
“The other thing is, are you playing against a physical team that’s downhill, are you playing physical safeties that are nosy and play good in the run front? That makes the play-action work.”
Smaller offensive lines that don’t do a lot of power stuff in the run game also help it work, Hope said, because teams like the Colts and Texans often slide at the snap, which creates a gray area in terms of revealing whether what’s to come is a run or pass.
According to Trent Green, who played quarterback for five different teams and now works as an analyst, the Colts go so far as to pull a guard on some play-action passes, which makes Manning even more effective.
While Manning is a great faker, quarterbacks can get too much credit for making it work, because it’s the line that has the biggest share of the sales pitch.
“If your offensive linemen are pass setting and you have the best play-faker in the world, the linebackers aren’t going to bite it, the safeties aren’t going to bite it,” Green said. “… The way that system really works well is based on their line.”
Stats might lump together all play-action, but the play-action games of the Texans and Colts are at different ends of the spectrum, Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil said.
Houston gets people moving laterally to stay sound against the run, then forces them to change direction against the play-action pass. Indianapolis’ play-action is less reliant on having an effective back and is more about gaining space vertically.
Cecil said he understands my desire for defenders to stop biting against a team that doesn’t run well. He’s actually told defenders in certain situations not to play run against the Colts until seeing the ball in a running back’s hands.
“A certain guy is pulling, but that’s not a run for them -- when he pulls, stay pass,” Cecil said, talking to me as if I were in his defensive meeting during a Colts week.
“You can work it and work it and work it, but it’s a hard thing to tell a guy not to react to something, because he’s reacted to it in every other game, and all year long and his whole life. It’s hard to get that out of them sometimes.”
Sunday at Oakland Coliseum, a Raiders linebacker will inevitably follow instinct over instruction, and Manning will connect with a target who gained space from a fake.
And I’ll still shake my head and wonder why, exactly, that defender feared a carry by the Colts.