EAGAN — The numbers couldn’t be any more clear: Quarterbacks have more success when they use play-action passes.
Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins is perhaps the best example. Throughout his four years as a starter in the NFL, his QB rating has been boosted when using a run fake. Last season Cousins’ rating jumped from 95.3 without play-action to a whopping 116.1 with play-action (per PFF).
He’s hardly alone. Out of 20 quarterbacks with at least 100 play-action attempts, 19 of them had a higher quarterback with the play-fake than without. Los Angeles Chargers veteran Philip Rivers led the NFL with an outrageous 128.6 rating, averaging 10.9 yards per attempt.
By now — with all 32 teams working in conjunction with Pro Football Focus — everybody knows it works.
One of the reasons the Vikings hired Gary Kubiak to join the coaching staff is that head coach Mike Zimmer wanted to see more play-action. Despite Cousins’ wild success, he ranked 17th of 20 in percentage of drop backs with play-action.
“It’s always been one of the hardest things defensively, the really good play-actions, the teams that can sell the run and predominantly teams that are using play-actions under center are better,” head coach Zimmer said.
Last season the Los Angeles Rams used play-action on nearly 36 percent of Jared Goff drop backs and 19 QBs used it on at least one of every five throws. Go back to 2012 when PFF first began tracking play-action and only 11 QBs were using play-action more than 20 percent of the time.
With the success of Sean McVay and the Rams offense, which has ranked in the top two in each of his seasons as head coach it’s very likely that the NFL will be faking handoffs left and right in 2019.
And the Vikings want to be ready.
“We are spending a lot more time working it,” Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “We realize that that is the situation around the league right now with the play-actions.”
“Guys are going to have to work a lot harder at it,” Zimmer said.
Work harder at what, exactly? Well that’s where it gets tricky.
Ted Nguyen, NFL film analyst for The Athletic, said NFL defenses don’t have easy answers to stopping quality play-action games.
“The bootleg concepts are good against any type of defense because they usually have a three-layer flood,” Nguyen said. “Against zone defenses they are good because they attack each level because you have one deep, one intermediate and the flat route. Against man coverage it’s hard to cover those crossing routes especially if you bite at all on the run action, which is why it’s tough. When a quarterback has time and he has to get outside on those bootlegs, it’s really hard to stop.”
Not impossible though.
In a breakdown of the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Rams, Nguyen wrote that Bill Belichick’s strategy was aimed at eliminating explosive plays off play-actions. He wrote:
“The Patriots played a lot of soft cover 4 rather than an aggressive pattern-match cover 4 because they didn’t want to get beat deep. In their zone coverages, New England’s defensive backs gingerly dropped back and kept their eyes on Goff with a soft focus on receivers. They kept everything in front of them and rallied up to make tackles on short throws. They wanted to force the Rams to go the length of the field on lengthy drives.”
Defenses can also take the opposite approach and take big risks with the potential of big rewards. They could blitz and hope to correctly pick when the offense was going to run a slower developing play-action and look to create a turnover. Of course if the offense has a savvy quarterback, he will spot a blitz coming to the bootleg side.
“Your best bet is if your D-end is really athletic and well-trained and doesn’t bite on play-action he can still attack the quarterback and give some pressure without having an extra edge guy,” Nguyen said.
The Vikings’ head coach, who spent the early days of his career working in Dallas as a defensive backs coach, said strong execution of the team’s scheme is the best way to slow play-action. That means there is an increased importance of the secondary keeping their eyes in the right spots rather than looking into the backfield on potential run plays.
“Deion [Sanders] got beat one time, we were playing Peyton Manning and he got beat on a play-action pass looking in the backfield and I said ‘what are you doing looking in the backfield you don’t hit anybody anyway,'” Zimmer said. “If you get your eyes in a bad spot that’s not a good thing.”
“Our guys are doing a good job of understanding that we still have to be aggressive against the run but have to get back underneath in coverage,” Edwards added.
Aside from straight drop backs and bootlegs, there are run-pass option plays, which became more popular following the Philadelphia Eagles’ run to the Super Bowl on the back of Nick Foles and his strong RPO game.
“I haven’t seen an NFL team do a great job of taking away RPOs,” Nguyen said. “The Chiefs literally ran the same RPO every play for the first play of the game and it worked every single time. I don’t think the NFL has a lot of great adjustments for RPOs.”
The Patriots were clever against the Chiefs in having their defensive tackle play two gaps and linebacker exclusively play the pass when facing RPOs.
Safety Anthony Harris has a simpler hack: If you don’t allow teams to get into play-action situations, you can’t get beat on play-action.
“It helps against the play-action when you stop the run, it’s not as effective because if you stop the run you can get them in situations where you don’t have to stop the run as much, you can be a little bit slower and don’t have to play as aggressive,” Harris said.
To illustrate the starting safety’s point: One of the reasons Cousins didn’t have more play-action attempts in 2018 is because the Vikings got down in games and couldn’t fool anyone with fakes. When trailing by two scores or on third-and-7 there’s simply no reason for linebackers or safeties to bite on run fakes. So while the data may prove that quality of running game doesn’t impact play-action success, stopping first-down runs to force second and third-and-long situations is key.
According to Harris, there’s also an instinctual element to it.