Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
14 Jan 2004
Guest Column by Bob Cook
The offense Peyton Manning runs for the Indianapolis Colts is like some classical music -- variations on a theme. For all the fevered conducting he does at the line of scrimmage, Manning, when the Colts offense is clicking, is actually overseeing a fairly simple symphony consisting of the off-tackle stretch and the play-action pass (and sometimes a play-action off the off-tackle draw).
When looking at the third-down stretch handoff, what's important is the action before the run that makes this play work for Indianapolis better than a conventional smashmouth off-tackle run.
In its 38-31 defeat of Kansas City, one-third of Indianapolis' running plays came from the off-tackle stretch, going either left or right. One-third of Indianapolis' passes came from play-action. The totals: 11 rushes, 60 yards on the off-tackle stretch (22 for 82 and 2 touchdowns otherwise); seven of 10 passing for 136 yards and 2 touchdowns on play-action (15 of 20 for 156 yards and 1 touchdown otherwise).
it's not as simple as saying, if you stop those two plays, you stop the Colts. New England, with its aggressive 3-4 defense, had the speed and smarts to cut off the outside during the 38-34 Patriots' victory at the RCA Dome this season, but the fact Indianapolis came back from a 31-10 deficit and was only one yard short of the winning touchdown at game's end shows Manning had some other pieces he can play in the Colts' offense.
Still, the Colts would like to replicate those ratios -- one-third bread-and-butter to two-thirds other stuff. The one-third bread-and-butter is what can make the two-thirds other stuff so effective. No team has relied on meticulous execution of such few plays since Green Bay's vaunted power sweep in the 1960s. Coincidence or not, Tom Moore, a backup running back on a few Packers championship teams, is Indianapolis' offensive coordinator. Here's how the plays work:
On the off-tackle stretch, Manning steps back and hands off to the back (usuallyEdgerrin James, of course), who is running in the direction of the play. The offensive line, rather than charging straight ahead like most lines do, let the defensive lineman get a little rush, then trap them about three or four yards behind the line of scrimmage. The lineman usually head in the opposite direction of the run, much like Miami did with its trap-block running game in the 1970s. (Yes, Moore was an offensive coach in Pittsburgh's trap-blocking scheme, but it was more straight-ahead than Miami's scheme.)
If all goes well, the defensive end on the side the play is being run will be practically in Manning's face once James (or, say, Dominic Rhodes) is taking off with the ball. Given that most defensive ends love to charge up the field, this can be easy to do. James runs around that end, out of position, and hopefully (for the Colts) no one is behind the defender. If this play is successful early on, like it was against Kansas City -- and really, what wasn't successful against Kansas City? -- it opens up plays where a guard pulls to lead James, or where James has a hole between the guard and the tackle.
The problem for a defense is this -- if the linemen are tied up, a linebacker needs to be available for run support. But given that the play develops like a pass with the blocking scheme, linebackers may be hesitant to go outside the line or even charge up to offer support. If they don't come, then the Colts will just run that play over and over until somebody stops it.
And if the linebacker is coming up for support, then here comes the play-action pass. On the play-action, the running back will either keep his position to block, or sprint out to the side where he would have run. The latter is what happened on 2nd-and-5 with 3:20 left, resulting in a 16-yard gain.
The Colts do not run every play-action off-tackle, but they do with some frequency. Manning is an effective faker, and, again, you can't tell until well into the play what he will be doing. If you overplay the run, Manning often will find a receiver in the big hole between the linebackers and the safeties. Which he did in his first touchdown pass, to Brandon Stokley, against Kansas City.
Of course, it's not just the plays you run, but when you run them. With both the off-tackle stretch and play-action, the Colts tend to do it early, often and on their side of the field. The main reason: you don't get those big holes closer to the end zone.
For example, on their first drive, the Colts ran five off-tackle draws -- three left and two right. They totaled five rushes for 19 yards, which doesn't seem like much, but one was an off-tackle draw left that netted James six yards on third-and-1, and another left that netted James 15 yards on second-and-10. A 2-yard loss right by Rhodes was the only off-tackle stretch in Kansas City territory. Manning was 1-for-2 on play-action -- the first an off-tackle play-action in which he overthrew Marvin Harrison in the end zone, and a 29-yard touchdown pass to Stokley.
The Colts don't run off-tackle draws much inside their opponents' territory because without a big swath of real estate ahead of them, there's not muchspace for the defense to handle. The Colts' three off-tackle stretch plays in KC territory netted only minus-1 yard. Eight such plays in Colts territory netted 61 yards.
Same with play-action. Without that gaping hole in the middle, the Colts don't run that play. Of course, Kansas City provided more than enough of a hole for Stokley. And Manning's only other play-action pass in Kansas City territory was an anamoly -- a play-action off of shotgun, and a pass in the flat to fullback Tom Lopienski, a player so obscure his parents probably didn't know until the touchdown that he played pro ball. Kansas City defensive coordinator Greg Robinson didn't.
Now as far as the off-tackle stretch handoff and the play-action setting everything else up, the most obvious beneficiary was the Colts' not-quite-so-straight-up draw play. The play develops the same as any other play, except that a guard comes from the opposite side of the play to clear a hole between the other guard and the tackle. That's what the Colts did with Edgerrin James' first touchdown run.
No doubt, the KC defense helped things along. The only time they blew up play-action, for example, was a 12-yard sack with a 1 minute left in the first half, and the ball starting on the Indianapolis 20. Even Peyton Manning must know that the worst defense isn't going to fall for play-action in that situation.
How will New England stop this? I'll leave it to the Patriots fans here to assess that. The biggest challenge for the Patriots isn't that they won't know what's coming, but that the Colts' level of execution is so high, their offense would be difficult for anybody to stop. If the Patriots can throw a few lousy notes in the symphony, and the least it means Manning won't be able to rely on his favorite instruments.
Bob Cook writes the weekly column Kick Out the Sports for Flak Magazine. Make sure you check out his recent article on websites devoted to getting coaches fired. If you are interested in writing a guest column, something that takes a new angle on the NFL, please email us your idea at info @ footballoutsiders.com
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