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20 Jun 2013

2012 Play-Action, Offense

by Mike Ridley

We carry on our extensive look at the myriad tables Football Outsiders uses focusing today on play-action passes. Thanks to the meticulous and painstaking work of our game charters, we’re able to provide an in-depth look at how teams employ this offensive cornerstone and find out who utilizes it the best (and worst).

Continuing with the trend of recent years, play-action was on the rise in 2012, marking the fourth time in five years this has happened. After holding at 19 percent in 2010 and 2011, play-action jumped to 21 percent, thanks largely to the three highest play-action frequencies we’ve seen since we started charting it in 2005. A year after Houston set the new benchmark with a 33 percent clip, Washington (42 percent), Seattle (35 percent) and Minnesota (35 percent) all eclipsed that, with Carolina also matching Houston’s 33 percent mark. Houston, meanwhile regressed to 25 percent, likely due to the fact that T.J. Yates wasn’t under center for 150 dropbacks this year.

Looking at the top four teams, you see a trend: young, athletic quarterbacks who can beat defenses with their legs. Robert Griffin took over and completely transformed the Redskins’ offense, allowing Mike Shanahan to double his play-action frequency largely due to read-options. The same holds true for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, who saw their total jump from 20 percent to 33 percent. Russell Wilson‘s presence had a similar effect in Seattle, creating a nearly 60 percent increase in play-action use. The only outlier appears to be Christian Ponder, who is athletic but not on the same tier as that group. But with the rushing threat that Adrian Peterson presents in Minnesota, it’s no surprise to see the Vikings near the top of the list.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find the Dallas Cowboys. After ranking 30th in 2011, the Cowboys dropped down to last place, running play-action on just 11 percent of their plays. Given the Cowboys difficulty in the running game, rash of injuries, and inconsistent play on the line, it shocks no one to see Dallas bringing up the rear.

A slight surprise from the list comes in the form of Jacksonville, who went from seventh in 2011 to 30th in 2012. Credit coach Mike Mularkey for realizing how poor Blaine Gabbert’s play-action numbers were and cutting its use from 22 percent to just 15 percent. Of course, the Jaguars injury woes at running back could’ve been a contributing factor.

The list of teams that have been in the bottom 10 in percentage of play-action passes in each of the last two years: Dallas, Arizona, Miami, Detroit, Chicago, and the New York Giants.

As far as effectiveness in using play-action is concerned, Washington also takes the crown for that. With an incredible 66.7% DVOA, the Redskins easily topped the league, with no other team above 60%. With such a high DVOA, it’s not unexpected to find out that Washington also benefited the most from using it. With just a 5.0% DVOA on regular passes, the 61.6% DVOA increase was tops in the NFL. Only Arizona’s 60.7% increase coming close. Their 4.6 yards per play increase was also the highest mark by 15 percent, a strong credit to the threat of the read-option.

The team with the worst DVOA on play-action was the New York Jets. This seems like another obvious fit, given that the Jets finished with the third-worst passing offense by DVOA. Their play-action DVOA of -41.7% was 16 percentage points lower than their closest competitor, Cleveland. A big reason the Jets were so woeful is their league-leading nine interceptions on play-action, which came on only 85 pass attempts. Add in fumbles lost by both Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow and you have an utter calamity.

The team that had the biggest negative DVOA difference was the previously-mentioned Browns. Considering that Cleveland’s DVOA on regular passes was 0.0%, this makes that accomplishment all the more impressive. The Browns quarterbacks committed eight turnovers during play-action, tied for the second-highest total in the league. Even when they kept possession of the ball, they were horrendous at accomplishing anything with it. They gave up 11 sacks (tied for fourth-most) and allowed defenses to have a league-high 63 percent success rate in stopping Cleveland’s offense on play-action.

Below is the play-action data from 2012 for all teams, in descending order starting with the teams that used the most play-action. The columns in green represent performance with play-action on actual passes only, with sacks, scrambles, and intentional grounding removed.

2012 Play-Action Pass Statistics, Offense
Offense PA% Yds/Play
with PA
with PA
Yds/Pass with PA
(Actual passes only)
DVOA with PA
(Actual passes only)
no PA
no PA
WAS 42% 10.1 66.7% 10.5 72.1% 5.5 5.0% 4.6 61.6%
SEA 35% 8.2 47.7% 8.6 48.6% 6.4 36.5% 1.8 11.2%
MIN 35% 6.0 12.9% 6.2 12.4% 5.4 0.6% 0.6 12.3%
CAR 33% 8.9 40.0% 8.9 38.4% 6.2 10.4% 2.7 29.6%
DEN 29% 10.5 58.2% 10.6 59.0% 6.5 46.9% 4.0 11.3%
SF 27% 8.6 59.8% 8.4 57.3% 6.5 24.8% 2.1 34.9%
PHI 26% 6.3 -0.9% 6.2 -6.0% 5.8 2.3% 0.5 -3.2%
HOU 25% 7.6 21.8% 7.6 21.8% 6.4 7.3% 1.1 14.5%
CLE 25% 6.6 -25.7% 6.7 -25.7% 5.5 0.0% 1.0 -25.6%
BAL 24% 6.9 4.5% 6.8 -1.0% 6.3 13.9% 0.7 -9.4%
TB 24% 7.2 22.2% 7.1 19.0% 6.7 4.4% 0.5 17.7%
Offense PA% Yds/Play
with PA
with PA
Yds/Pass with PA
(Actual passes only)
DVOA with PA
(Actual passes only)
no PA
no PA
NE 24% 8.8 55.7% 8.8 55.7% 6.6 55.2% 2.2 0.5%
STL 22% 7.9 24.7% 8.1 25.4% 5.6 2.8% 2.3 21.9%
OAK 20% 5.6 -7.3% 5.6 -8.8% 6.6 12.1% -1.0 -19.4%
KC 20% 6.7 -25.2% 6.7 -31.4% 5.3 -28.7% 1.4 3.5%
NO 20% 8.1 17.8% 8.1 17.8% 6.9 26.5% 1.2 -8.7%
BUF 19% 7.1 16.2% 7.2 15.9% 5.9 -5.1% 1.2 21.3%
GB 19% 7.6 30.3% 8.0 30.5% 6.7 45.5% 0.9 -15.1%
SD 18% 5.6 -2.0% 5.6 -0.9% 5.8 9.0% -0.2 -11.0%
TEN 18% 6.5 -2.0% 6.6 -7.4% 5.8 -12.9% 0.6 10.9%
IND 18% 7.9 26.3% 7.9 19.7% 6.1 2.0% 1.7 24.4%
PIT 18% 7.4 31.8% 7.4 32.1% 6.2 10.6% 1.2 21.1%
Offense PA% Yds/Play
with PA
with PA
Yds/Pass with PA
(Actual passes only)
DVOA with PA
(Actual passes only)
no PA
no PA
ATL 17% 8.3 44.1% 8.4 43.8% 6.8 21.4% 1.6 22.7%
NYJ 17% 6.3 -41.7% 6.4 -43.9% 5.3 -19.2% 1.1 -22.6%
CIN 17% 6.9 1.2% 7.0 0.6% 6.1 8.8% 0.8 -7.6%
NYG 17% 6.8 10.3% 6.9 10.1% 7.1 25.1% -0.2 -14.8%
CHI 17% 6.1 19.2% 5.9 15.5% 6.0 -2.0% 0.1 21.2%
DET 16% 6.7 9.1% 6.8 8.6% 6.5 29.4% 0.2 -20.3%
MIA 16% 9.0 46.6% 9.0 45.1% 5.7 -10.4% 3.2 57.0%
JAC 15% 5.8 -7.7% 5.7 -11.9% 5.4 -13.4% 0.3 5.7%
ARI 13% 7.3 24.1% 7.1 20.6% 4.3 -36.6% 3.0 60.7%
DAL 11% 8.8 53.0% 8.8 53.0% 6.7 23.0% 2.1 30.0%
NFL 21% 7.6 21.9% 7.6 20.6% 6.1 9.8% 1.5 12.1%

Acknowledgement to ESPN Stats and Information Group; as part of teaming up with ESPN Stats and Info to streamline our game charting this season, our data on which pass plays had play-action comes from them.

Posted by: Mike Ridley on 20 Jun 2013

24 comments, Last at 29 Dec 2015, 1:31pm by galaxyapple


by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 06/20/2013 - 12:33pm

I'd love to see SF split between A. Smith and C. Kaepernick.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 06/20/2013 - 12:37pm

I thought the exact same thing.

by Mike Ridley :: Thu, 06/20/2013 - 12:46pm

Smith was a hair under 24 percent and Kaepernick was at 30 percent on the nose.

by peterplaysbass :: Mon, 06/24/2013 - 8:31am

Makes me wonder what a Minnesota split with and without Percy Harvin would look like.

by Noah Arkadia :: Thu, 06/20/2013 - 12:56pm

Huge positive difference for Miami, I wonder if Tannehill's greenness had something to do with them not using play action as much, and if they will use it more this year. And if so, will they be as effective as they were last year. Or not "as" effective, but much more effective?

The man with no sig

by IrishBarrister :: Thu, 06/20/2013 - 1:40pm

The real surprise for me here is Atlanta. Their DVOA difference on play-action passes seems really odd in light of the Falcons poor running game.

by theslothook :: Thu, 06/20/2013 - 4:08pm

We probably haven't teased out enough variables to determine what exactly contributes to pA effectiveness. Is it mostly the qb or is it the run game? do you need certain receivers or a certain scheme? etc etc.

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 06/21/2013 - 2:33pm

The QB appears to be the number one factor. Remember Steve DeBerg? His play action fakes were so good even the people watching on TV weren't sure where the ball was.

The second factor is how good is the QB at recovering the lost time. When a QB does a play action fake, he loses sight of the field for a moment. Some QBs can't handle it, it messes up their reads.

Other than that, from what I've heard the defense always bites, no matter how good/bad the running game or what the down and distance is.

The man with no sig

by Led :: Thu, 06/20/2013 - 4:23pm

"it shocks no one to see Dallas bringing up the rear"

It shocks me. They're way, way better passing with play action. So is Arizona, only with a few more "way"s. How can the coaches continue to use it so infrequently?

by Aaron (not verified) :: Thu, 06/20/2013 - 7:58pm

Interesting that with such a terrible running game Arizona saw a good deal of success when involving playaction passing.

Also interesting is that despite their success when running playaction they were the team that did it the second least in the NFL.

One would think that a team that would have been absolutely desperate for any semblance of offense by about week 8 or 9 would have clutched onto anything that was even a glimmer of hope.

by ammek :: Fri, 06/21/2013 - 7:30am

This seems like a stat for which DVOA isn't very useful. Turnovers make a big difference to the DVOA number, and I'm not convinced they tell us anything about a team's effectiveness at using play-action.

Yards per play is better, and significantly there are only three teams with a negative yards-per-play differential off play-action, compared with 10 teams that have a negative DVOA differential. Oakland is the true odd case: 7th in yards-per-play without play-action, joint last with play-action.

by whckandrw (not verified) :: Mon, 06/24/2013 - 3:26am

Great insight. A few interceptions or fumbles here and there could skew these numbers big time.

by Not Jimmy (not verified) :: Fri, 06/21/2013 - 10:23am

Interesting that the Pats have only 0.5% different PA to no PA while running it 25% of plays. That must be a function of an immobile QB. We'll see how that changes this year with Brady having no one to throw to.

by SandyRiver :: Tue, 06/25/2013 - 11:06am

Easily the lowest differential of any team. I'm guessing it's more a function of their top-ranked non-PA than Brady's lack of foot speed - they were 4th best in PA rating. As you said, we'll see how things work out if the Pats have to return to a Smurf receiving corps.

by BigBenBai (not verified) :: Fri, 06/21/2013 - 10:46am

Not a lot of mention about Denver’s success with Play Action—and I would expect that those numbers will only go up this year. With Denver looking to speed up the offense and the additions of Wes Welker and Monte Ball, Manning is going to have a lot of options with play action.

by andrewm (not verified) :: Mon, 06/24/2013 - 6:06am

One thing that might be worth considering here is what teams do when they are running play-action. The Giants (who at least used to be a good play-action team) seem, at least on my subjective recall, to use play-action for "shot" plays a lot more. Other teams seem to use it much more for the short game, dropping the ball just over linebackers sucked in for the run.

by mr_sweet (not verified) :: Tue, 06/25/2013 - 12:39am

When running the read-option type of offense, is that considered play-action if the QB doesn't run or handoff? Same goes with the pistol formation?

by zlionsfan :: Mon, 07/01/2013 - 7:03pm

Regardless of formation or offense type, there needs to be some kind of handoff motion for a play to be marked as PA. That should cover pretty much all read option plays; of course you can run pretty much anything out of the pistol, so there can be a number of pass plays that are not PA.

by Easton (not verified) :: Wed, 06/26/2013 - 2:19am

Great insight. A few interceptions or fumbles here and there could skew these numbers big time.

by Bjorn Nittmo :: Wed, 06/26/2013 - 5:18pm

After 40 years of watching football, I'd like to ask: why is it called play action?

by essayscope.com (not verified) :: Tue, 07/02/2013 - 11:48am

Thanks for statistics!!! Very important data for me.

by OlSkool1972 (not verified) :: Thu, 07/11/2013 - 2:04pm

It's why all these coaches that just compare read option plays to the wildcat are just blowin smoke. They have no answers for it so all they can do is make thinly veiled threats at Offenses saying their gonna knock the QB's out of the game if they use it. The problem with the wildcat is that all you could do is run out of it and there were no passing options except a RB or WR throwing a pass to a uncovered receiver. Kyle Shanahan basically threw down the gauntlet to old heads like Gunther Cunningham saying the Redskins will not only keep using the read option but will expand on it.

by HailToST21 (not verified) :: Tue, 07/23/2013 - 9:28pm

Don't forget that RG3 sells the play-action really really well, especially for a rookie. He had me fooled on more than one play last year.

by galaxyapple :: Tue, 12/29/2015 - 1:31pm