With Alabama holding serve as the nation's top team, Brian Fremeau explains how good play-by-play teams can still struggle drive-by-drive -- and vice versa.
14 Aug 2014
by Scott Kacsmar
Do you really want stats for third-string quarterbacks throwing passes to the No. 8 wide receiver this August? We're killing time in the preseason by reviewing results from our 2013 game charting. Much of this data also shows up in our book Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, and the raw play-by-play charting is now available for purchase. One of the more valuable pieces of information comes from the play-action passing stats.
There was a slight decline in play-action usage, dropping from 21.4 percent in 2012 to 20.8 percent in 2013. After four teams used play action at least 33 percent of the time in 2012, only one did last season, and that offense won the Super Bowl. That also might explain why Seattle had the highest rate of pressure, because play-action passes take more time to execute and blocks need to be held longer. As much as teams would like to use play action more often, the league average has been holding strong at around 20 percent in recent years.
While every offense does worse under pressure, the play-action pass is not a benefit to every offense. Since 2008, 37.5 percent of all offenses had a higher DVOA without play action than their DVOA with play action. None had a bigger disparity than the 2011 Giants (-62.4%), who struggled with the offensive line before putting together a Super Bowl run. No 2013 offense had even a top 20 disparity in the last six years, but there were some notable declines from the 2012 season.
Not changing much are the play-action rates by down, which we have in the table below for the last five seasons.
|Play-Action Rate by Down|
|Season||1st Down||2nd Down||3rd Down|
If it's third down, your defense may not want to even consider the fake, though we know some teams will break a tendency on third-and-short to look for a big play. Over the last two years, the Broncos (13.1 percent) and Seahawks (10.8 percent) are the two most likely offenses to use play action on third down. They were the top two in 2013.
The following data is only for the 2013 regular season. Offenses are sorted by the descending rate of play-action usage (percentage of dropbacks). The first two splits show the results for using play action with scrambles included and excluded. The third section is for dropbacks without play action. The final "Difference" section shows the change in yards per play and DVOA when play action isn't used (scrambles included). A high ranking there indicates the offense was much better with play action.
|Offense||PA Pct||Rk||with PA (Pass/Scram)||with PA (Passes only)||No PA||Difference|
|Offense||PA Pct||Rk||with PA (Pass/Scram)||with PA (Passes only)||No PA||Difference|
Well, imagine that. The top two offenses (Denver and San Diego) in DVOA with play action are the top two offenses in DVOA without play action too. The correlation between the two stats was 0.68 in 2013. That's a topic we'll certainly dive deeper into before the season starts. The Broncos only trail the 2010 Patriots (91.7%) in highest DVOA with play action since 2008.
I couldn't write an article last summer about Washington without mentioning the absurd amount of play action that was used in Robert Griffin III's rookie season. The 2012 Redskins used play action on 42 percent of their dropbacks -- the highest rate Football Outsiders has tracked since 2005. That fell to 27 percent in 2013, which still ranked sixth in the league, but man oh man did the efficiency nosedive. Washington went from a league-best 66.7% DVOA on play action to third worst (-13.0%) in 2013. Griffin was slow to recover from his torn ACL and the Redskins were slow starters with 47 points scored in the first quarter all year (ranked 29th). Throw in a lousy defense and that led to a bunch of big deficits, making it difficult for the Redskins to control the game with the run, the zone-read looks and play action.
Washington's one of nine offenses since 2008 to be at least 60 percentage points better in DVOA with play action compared to without. Those teams have declined in DVOA with play action by an average of 36.2 percentage points the next season. The only offense to get better with play action was 2012 Denver, which replaced Tim Tebow with Peyton Manning. We'll see how Jay Gruden taking over for Mike Shanahan impacts the Washington offense. With Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, Gruden used play action on 17.5 percent of plays. Will he still have Griffin use the zone read?
Former Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan gloated about the zone read last summer. "It’s the least pass rush I’ve ever seen as a coordinator — guys just sitting there scared to death, just watching everybody, not moving." Defenses sure were ready for that wrinkle last year.
The next offense dying to be "studied" this year is Chip Kelly's Eagles. He picked up Washington's lead for the NFC East and used the zone read more than any NFL offense ever has. The best rushing offense in the league combined with the second most play action kept defenses guessing all year. With defenses watching the mesh point, wondering if Nick Foles would hand off to LeSean McCoy or keep the ball to throw deep, there were big plays galore for this offense. At the start of the season with multiple quarterbacks, the Eagles used play action on 24 percent of plays. When Foles was healthy for the final eight games, that increased to 39 percent. In that span Foles averaged 10.2 yards per attempt and threw 12 touchdowns on play-action passes.
Since 2008, the year-to-year correlation for DVOA with play action is only 0.16, so it will be interesting to see if the Eagles come close to matching last year's success. At least their quarterback isn't recovering from a torn ACL.
We're not trying to make this about the NFC East, but that division just has some of the most interesting play-action offenses. Someone might want to alert Jason Garrett, because for some reason the Cowboys have ranked 30th, 32nd and 30th in play-action usage in his three full seasons as head coach. If Tony Romo wasn't effective with play action, then that would be understandable, but this offense has ranked seventh, fifth and eighth with play action the last three years. Garrett has one of the best play-action quarterbacks in the league and yet he uses it 12.5 percent of the time.
We showed above offenses are using play action on second down 21.4 percent of the time. The Cowboys have ranked 31st (12.0 percent in 2013), 32nd (8.9 percent in 2012) and 25th (14.9 percent) in second down play-action rate. Garrett doesn't seem to think play action on second down is feasible.
One hypothesis would be that in Garrett's first full year (2011) he was getting Romo back from a broken collarbone, so maybe there was an injury concern, but that's disproven by 2008-10 when Garrett was the offensive coordinator. Even then the Cowboys were only using play action on 14.3 percent of dropbacks. He just doesn't use it much, even when the offense ran effectively like last year when DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing DVOA.
The AFC East was interesting too. Buffalo had the worst DVOA with play action, which sounded like another red flag on EJ Manuel after this week's evidence that he wasn't very good without pressure last year. However, it was actually Thad Lewis who brought the Bills' numbers down with an awful 2.5 yards per play using play action. His success rate was a tick under 30 percent compared to 49 percent for Manuel. So don't panic…yet.
Likewise, we shouldn't pull the plug on Geno Smith in New York. While his deep passing was solid last year, play action was not very effective for him. The Jets ranked 32nd in DVOA with play action in 2012 with Mark Sanchez, and they only moved up to 31st with Smith. At least the increase (20.9 percentage points) was sizeable.
No offense improved more with play action than Miami, which just goes to show how a better offensive line can really help that offense. Nearly a third of the deep shots (passes thrown 20-plus yards) to Mike Wallace were on play action last year, but Ryan Tannehill struggled to hit those throws (six-of-35). If he can hit a few more this year with better protection, then his overall DVOA should be a career best. The lack of faith in the line rarely allowed for play action last year. New offensive coordinator Bill Lazor comes over from Philadelphia, and we know the Eagles loved play action.
Baltimore's in a similar position with the second-biggest increase using play action, plus hope with a new offensive coordinator and improved offensive line. However, the intriguing part is Joe Flacco had the best season of his career using play action with 30.1% DVOA in 2013. This comes despite one of the worst rushing offenses in the DVOA era. That may be why Baltimore only ranked 29th in play-action rate, but it didn't hurt the efficiency. Gary Kubiak's calling the shots now and some of the best play-action offenses in our database were coached by Kubiak in Houston.
Two offenses on the other end of the spectrum are Pittsburgh and Chicago. Both were over 22 percentage points better at DVOA without play action last year. For the Bears, that split was prevalent for Jay Cutler and Josh McCown, though Cutler was less successful with play action. In Pittsburgh, this is the second time in three years Ben Roethlisberger had a better DVOA without play action. Those days of him being a "play-action deep ball guy with a great running game" feel like ancient history. That label was never fully fair because so much of his playmaking ability came on broken plays under pressure where he made something happen.
That exact role belongs to Russell Wilson now, who like Roethlisberger before him will have to shed that skin eventually and prove he can handle the bigger load. Seattle's been in the top two in play-action rate the last two years. The good news is Seattle's also ranked top 10 in DVOA without play action in both years, so Wilson's not just leaning on play action. We also know he's been pressured a ton and leads the league in scrambles and passes thrown out of the pocket in each of the last two years. I guess you can say Wilson's been very easy to identify by stats in regards to his unique playing style. He really is The Asterisk.
Next time we will focus on how the defenses handled the play-action pass last year. Any bets on the Seahawks ranking first there as well?
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