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Summer School: The secret to effective play-action passing

Let’s look at an Eli Manning strength that hasn’t been used enough by the Giants in recent seasons

NFL: New York Giants-OTA Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

You’re a linebacker. As the offense snaps the ball, you notice the offensive line move forward to run block — there’s even a pulling guard. You see the quarterback turn his back to you and reach the ball out to his running back. You know it’s going to be a run so you start to charge forward. But then the quarterback pulls the ball away and sets his feet to pass. You’re now out of position to defend the pass properly and there’s an open lane behind you that a receiver sneaks into for an open play in the middle of the field.

This is how play-action works.

The most important part in the success of a play-action pass is the execution of the play-action pass. In the scenario above, you, the linebacker, aren’t thinking about how good or bad that offense is at running the ball. You’re thinking and reacting to the keys you see in front of you. If an offense is good at making you believe they’re going to run the ball, that’s all they need to execute an effective play-action pass.

It’s important to know what makes a good play-action pass because play-action passes are one of the most effective plays in football. Last year teams averaged 7.4 yards per play (including sacks) on play-action passes and 6.3 yards per play on passes without it, per charting from Sports Info Solutions and Football Outsiders. That’s the difference between being last year’s second-best team in overall yards per pass play and the 13th. Teams go from slightly above average to elite efficiency just by adding play-action to the beginning of a pass.

Recent studies have shown there’s no correlation between how well or often a team runs and how good they are at play-action. At Football Outsiders, Ben Baldwin tested things such as rushing success rate, rushing percentage, and the frequency of rushes before a play-action attempt and found no correlation on how much the success of play-action passing. I’ve done some of my own studies using Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA (efficiency), first-half rushing attempts (establishing the run), and total rushing attempts and came to a similar conclusion — there’s no correlation.

The secret to running good play-action is the ability to run good play-action. Look no further than the Detroit Lions who had one of the league’s worst rushing offenses by just about any imaginable measure last season and still led all teams in yards per play on play-action passes.

A useful takeaway from this is that teams could and should run more play-action passes regardless of how the run game is going.

Only seven teams used play-action on 25 percent or more of their pass attempts in 2017. Another seven teams used it on less than 20 percent. There’s plenty of room to increase the use of play-action before a breakeven point is reached. In the Super Bowl, the Eagles used play-action on 21 of Nick Foles’s 43 pass attempts (48.8 percent). That worked out just fine.

The good news for the New York Giants? No team used play-action more in 2017 than the Pat Shurmur-coordinated Minnesota Vikings (30 percent).

Minnesota didn’t have a great run game last season. The Vikings finished seventh in rushing yards, but that was due to being second in rushing attempts — thanks, in part, to leading late in games. Per-play metrics aren’t nearly as kind — the Vikings finished 23rd in yards per attempt and 18th in rushing DVOA. The offense still managed to be one of the best play-action teams in the league — seventh in yards per play and the sixth-biggest difference between yards per play on passes with play-action and those without.

What made the Vikings so good at play-action last season wasn’t the threat of the run, it was the look of the run.

On this play against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 7, the Vikings came out in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver) for a third-and-1 on Minnesota’s 42-yard line. The Vikings bunched the three tight ends close to the right side of the formation. That put 10 Vikings at or near the line of scrimmage. Even the lone wide receiver on the play was lined up just outside the left hash. It didn’t matter that up until this point in the season, the Vikings had thrown the ball on 10 of their 14 plays on third-and-1 or third-and-2, the second-highest pass rate (71 percent) at the time, per Sharp Football Stats. Everything about the play screamed short-yardage run, so the Ravens had 10 defenders in the box.

Aside from a loaded line of scrimmage, a key to selling this run is right guard Joe Berger (61). At the snap, Berger pulled to outside the left guard — another tell for a run. As Chris Brown of Smart Football once wrote, pulling a guard is a great addition to play-action.

Now the play design really comes into the equation, and this is a place where Shurmur really shines. As Case Keenum reached the ball out to running back Jerick McKinnon, the outside tight end Blake Bell (81) ran a crossing route. With no other routes to that side of the field, Bell’s route occupied both the outside corner and the safety while the rest of the defense played the run. But when Keenum pulled the ball away from the running back, tight end Kyle Rudolph (82), who had been in the middle released to the flat with the right side of the field cleared out.

Rudolph had room to run and the play gained 19 yards.

Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 13, the Vikings used another trick Shurmur excels at — pre-snap motion — and added that to the start of a play-action pass.

On the first play of the game, Minnesota came out in 12 personnel but it was similar to the look of the 13 personnel play against Baltimore because Stefon Diggs initially lined up tight to the formation on the right side. The formation caused Atlanta to show eight defenders in the box.

Diggs then motioned to the left side of the formation, just behind the left tackle. The motion shifted three defenders over to their right — linebacker Deion Jones (45), safety Ricardo Allen (37), and edge Vic Beasley (44) — and two moved closer to the line of scrimmage. It also brought cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson (33) over into the box on the defense’s left side.

At the snap, the offense faked the run to its left as Diggs snuck back out to the right. The run fake to start is enough to freeze the defenders in the middle of the field while the passing concepts were set up.

Wide receiver Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph both ran deep to occupy the defenders who reacted quickly enough to play the pass. Most importantly, Thielen got Jones to stay with him down the field. This allowed Diggs to get the ball in space with a blocking advantage down the field.

Tight end David Morgan (89) took out Wreh-Wilson in front of Diggs and Thielen was able to take Jones out of the play to set up a running lane for Diggs. It was an easy 13-yard gain to start the game.

Play-action can also be used to set up advantages when there shouldn’t be any. On this play against the Detroit Lions, the Vikings again came out in 12 personnel for a first-and-19 after a penalty on the previous play. On first-and-15 or more last season NFL teams threw the ball 62 percent of the time — up from 47 percent of the time on first-and-10, per Sharp Football Stats.

This situation would suggest pass, but the Vikings came out in another tight formation. Diggs is just outside a two-tight end right side of the line and Laquon Treadwell (11) was isolated to the left, but still inside the numbers. The Lions countered this with an eight-man box and a single-high safety,

At the snap, Keenum turned his back to the defense and reached the ball out to McKinnon. This got all eight Detroit defenders in the box to react to the run. The Vikings only sent two men out in routes — typically something that doesn’t lend itself to a successful passing play — but with the eight-man box committed to the run, the Vikings have a two-on-three advantage — yes, advantage — against the single-high safety and two cornerbacks. Someone is going to be one-on-one and that’s a win in the NFL.

Treadwell’s route went deep, which occupied the safety and left Diggs in one-on-one coverage. Setting up a receiver with Diggs’s skillset — or say, someone like Odell Beckham Jr. — is an offensive coordinator’s dream. Diggs broke off his route for a comeback and even a cornerback as good as Darius Slay had no chance to recover.

The play gained 13 yards and set up a manageable second down after facing a first-and-long. Minnesota scored a touchdown five plays later on another play-action pass from the goal line.

Play-action is one of the most efficient concepts in today’s NFL, but it’s something that’s not used enough. With an understanding that good concepts and execution are what’s needed for an effective play-action attack, teams could start to use it more to their advantage. Under Shurmur, the Giants have the potential to be a great play-action team before even factoring in what’s been added in the backfield and the offensive line. It’s something that should be a welcome added element to the offense in 2018.