When Play Action Fails

It’s no secret that the Rams love to run their passing game off play action. Per Football Outsiders, they used play action on 34% of their passes last season, good for #1 in the league. On those plays, they gained an average of 9.0 yards per play, #3 in the league.

So the Rams like to use play action and they’re good at it. They also run the ball well – averaging 4.9 yards per carry in 2018 – which helps sell the play action. When defenses are forced to respect the run game, it helps sell the play action.

Let’s take a look at one of my favorite plays of theirs. This one is from the Week 4 game against Minnesota.

On this play, they run play action, then sneak Cooper Kupp [18] over the line, under the noses of the linebackers and up the field on a wheel.

You can see how the linebackers are pulled up to the line and how that impacts the play. Let’s look at it from another angle.

Granted, Anthony Barr [55] should not be in a position to be guarding Kupp up the field anyway, but biting on the play action and being frozen in place made this an impossible task.

Let’s look at another play from that same game.

Rams are running play action with a dig behind. I didn’t show it on this image, but Kupp is running a post from inside of Robert Woods [17] to take the safety out of the equation.

Look at all the space in the middle of the field. Again, Kupp clears the safety, but the linebackers being pulled up gives a ton of room to throw behind them. Let’s look at the whole play.

All Woods has to do is beat his man to the inside and he’s got a ton of room to work with. Woods does that easily, and it’s a pitch-and-catch.

Now, let’s look at a play from the Super Bowl.

Different splits of the receivers on this play, but the idea is the same: attack the safety in the middle with a post from the inside, run a dig under it and use play action to pull up the linebackers. The linebacker they’re looking to pull up is Dont’a Hightower [54], who is not necessarily known for his strong coverage skills.

Hightower takes a step forward, but doesn’t bite nearly as hard as the Vikings linebackers we looked at earlier. Beyond that, he doesn’t freeze. He takes one step up – more like a half-step up, really – then immediately falls back to his zone. Suddenly, the throw that was wide open for large parts of the season wasn’t there anymore. Hightower doesn’t do anything amazing: he just plays disciplined and smart.

It wasn’t just this one play: the Patriots were doing this all game. I’m going to just throw a few plays here. In all of them, just watch Hightower in the middle of the field and how he reacts to play action.

He never bites hard. He’s never frozen. He takes a step or two in case of support, then immediately retreats to his zone.

Beyond that, look at the safeties. They’re not biting. They’re not coming up in support of the run because they don’t have to. Everyone is handling their assignments and not worried too much about the play action.

The Patriots knew the Rams were going to run play action at them and they were ready for it. They jammed up the passing lanes the Rams like to use by not biting hard on the play action fake.

Let’s look at some numbers before we get up outta here. I mentioned at the top that the Rams were one of the best teams in the league this year when running play action, averaging 9.0 yards per play. So how did they do in this game?

Not great. They averaged 8.7 yards per attempt, but when you factor in the sack, they only averaged 6.64 yards per play. Still better than their abysmal 4.17 yards per play without play action, but a far cry from their season average.

Now let’s play in hypotheticals for a minute. You remember this play?

Of course you do. This would have been a touchdown if Goff had correctly diagnosed the coverage and hit the streaking Cooks over the top. What happens if this play is a touchdown?

Oh look! They’re actually above their season average on yards per play. Funny how much one play can swing the numbers.

I know the touchdown didn’t actually happen, and dealing in hypotheticals is a slippery slope. So let’s just think about those original numbers for a second. The play action numbers didn’t hit their season average, but the Rams still averaged 2.47 more yards per play when utilizing play action than they did on plays when they didn’t use play action.

This has been on my mind a lot lately; is play action successful because of the running game or is it simply the deception that makes it successful? Luckily for me – and all of us – the very smart people over at Football Outsiders have tackled this subject recently.

Ben Baldwin recently did a series of posts where he studied the impact of a strong running game on the play action game and essentially discovered that there isn’t really any evidence to support that claim. It’s a concept I’m still trying to fully grasp, as it flies in the face of a lot of assumptions I have held. But looking at this game and how the numbers shook out, it’s easy to start changing my way of thinking.


Albums listened to: Thom Yorke – Suspiria; Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps

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