The Play-Action Pass: Tying Runs to Pass Concepts

As I’ve mentioned before in my first article in this column, I believe that offenses should be set up to evolve rather than have to make major changes from year to year because of changes in personnel. As part of our evolution, a key component was to find efficiencies in the structure of our system. The goal was to create a system where everything we do is tightly integrated. Within that integration we wanted to find efficiencies and carryover while allowing for flexibility and multiplicity.

One area which has evolved for us is our play-action passing game. In the past, we had drop back play-action that existed as only one run action with one basic route combination and a variation added with a tag. The structure of the run action protection limited the route combination and therefore our use of what was simply termed “Action Post ” or “Action Post Change.” While these were effective at times, the limitation in the number of looks (formations) made it difficult to integrate into every game plan.

We experimented with a number of different tags over two seasons and realized that if we wanted a drop back play-action game to be more effective, it would have to satisfy three criteria. First, we would need a way to tie it to our main runs in a game plan. Second, we would need route variations, and third, we wanted to be able to do it out of multiple formations and personnel.

Our realization became clear after talking with our players after a big homecoming win in 2010. On a critical third down, we called a drop back play- action pass in the red zone. We ended up hitting the tight end over the middle for a first down and eventually scored the game winning touchdown on the drive. What our players told us is that they were not sure if the tight end was supposed to release on this variation of what we generically called “action” or stay in and block. The quarterback guessed right when the tight end asked him, and said, “just go out.” After that we knew we needed to create a better structure.

Here’s the video of that play. We had a couple of different “action” plays for this game, and the tight end and wasn’t exactly sure which it was. You see him having a brief conversation with the quarterback before the play. Fortunately they executed the play the way we had designed it.

What we also wanted was carryover or “same as” situations for our players. After researching and working through our structure and throwing up ideas on the board, we were able to incorporate a very flexible play-action passing structure with a very simple change to how we called the plays. The word “action” before dictated an outside zone action protection that really only worked well with an 8-man protection scheme and a two-man route. From this point on, the word “action” served almost as a conjunction joining a run action and a passing concept or combination that we already carried. For the line and running back what mattered was the run call before the word “action.” For the receivers it was the passing concept or combination after the word.

For example, the play could be called, “Power Right Action Curl.” To the offense, the call basically says run power and run curl. The back and quarterback understand to fake the run. Now all run actions and all pass concepts were available to us in building a game plan.

Action passes now allow us to use a full flow run, protect with seven or eight blockers, and tie our play-action directly to our drop back concepts. On the reverse out, the quarterback hides the ball from the defense and helps draw in the safeties and linebackers. Dual responsibility defenders are stressed and the reads for the quarterback become clean.

Our offensive line will block the run. Action tells them not to go more than three yards down the field in executing the run block. We do not make any variations to the run other than making sure they settle by three yards and help another blocker if they are unengaged with a defender. All of our runs work with this type of play-action.

Our receivers will execute the pass concept that is called. We have used all of our pass concepts as part of our action package.

Play calling an action pass is explained in the following slide:

Now our playbook and game plan have tools for attacking a defense with the play-action that are much more effective. It makes much more sense to be able to use the exact same formation and run action for play-action that a game plan is built on.

Here are some examples of our action passes.

In this first example we use receiver sweep with an inside zone fake paired with our 3-levels flood concept. The quarterback missed a big opportunity on the post.

The next example pairs our power play with a curl concept. We block it exactly like we would on the run with a guard pulling through for the linebacker. The run flow draws the linebacker up and opens the curl window.

The next example combines inside zone with a scissors combination. All defensive keys indicate that this is a run play. The alley player hesitates to drop and allows us to get #2 open cleanly on the sideline.

The next example pairs counter with our four verticals in the red zone. We release four on this play. The guard pulling draws the linebacker up and allows us to throw the touchdown to the tight end.

What we have been able to do is create a synergy between our running game and our drop back passing game. We can use six, seven, or eight man protections depending on how the run is called, and we can use a full field or half field drop back combination to attack a coverage. While this has expanded our options greatly, it has simplified things for our players. This has been an exciting evolution in our offense.