Play-action is king and it reigned supreme in Week 1 of the 2019 NFL regular season. There have been plenty of studies over the past few years that have shown how effective play-action can be and how nothing really needs to be established on the ground in order for a run fake to work, especially since defensive players are going to react to run keys if the play is sold correctly. 

Smart teams have picked up on the efficiency of play-action and have upped their usage over the past few seasons. In 2015, only three teams used play-action on at least 25% of their pass attempts. In 2018, that jumped to 14 teams. In Week 1, 12 teams used play-action on at least a quarter of their drop backs and another eight used it on at least 20%.

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It shouldn’t be a surprise that play-action passes were more effective than straight drop backs, but by how much might come as a bit of a shock. Per Expected Points Added from Sports Info Solutions, play-action passes were worth 0.24 EPA per drop back while passes without play-action averaged 0.07 EPA per drop back. During the 2018 regular season, that split was 0.12 to 0.00. Play-action passes also brought significantly higher yards per attempt, touchdown rate, and positive play rate. There was also a lower interception rate. The sack rate was just slightly higher on play-action drop backs in Week 1, but the positive results when the ball was thrown were well worth the tradeoff.

Week 1, 2019AttemptsComp%YPATD%INT%Sack%EPA/DBPositive%
Non-PA89566.5%7.084.8%2.0%6.2%0.0747.1%
PA24869.0%10.497.3%1.6%7.8%0.2452.2%

High Usage

The teams that wanted to use play-action in the opening week really used play-action. Four teams used a play fake on at least 40% of their drop backs in Week 1. Those teams were the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, and Tennessee Titans. Even with the high rate, there was little dropoff in efficiency. Those four teams were 14th, fifth, eighth, and sixth in EPA per drop back on play-action passes, respectively. Top-8 efficiency from the Cowboys, Ravens, and Titans is even more impressive because the raw volume was also higher, while the Vikings only had 11 total drop backs, six of which with play-action.

Dallas and Baltimore are teams to focus on as offenses with new philosophies that heavily incorporated play-action. The Ravens spent so much time during the offseason talking about how much Lamar Jackson was going to run, the fear was already established with words. The Ravens let Jackson throw often in Week 1 and big plays happened off play-action. Meanwhile, the Cowboys overhauled an offense and realized play-action and RPOs could serve as a strength for Dak Prescott, then decided most of the passing offense should be built off that concept. It shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but it is. 

Both the Ravens and Cowboys can serve as a blueprint for so many teams going forward since these offenses were already among the leaders in play-action rate in 2018. Last season the Ravens were at 28%, which ranked eighth and the Cowboys were at 25%, which was 14th.

Early Downs

One of the biggest positive indicators of play-action use was on early downs in the first half. League-wide, teams used play-action of 29.2% of drop backs on first and second down in the first half during Week 1. This gives us a good indicator of what teams wanted to do in their game plans before the score and game script shifted play-calling later in games. 

Teams averaged 0.28 EPA per drop back on these early down attempts in the first half. All this came without a high rate of touchdowns bumping the EPA total up. The 5.3% touchdown rate on these throws was closer to the overall non-play-action rate, but with 10.8 yards per attempt on these throws, early-down play-action was a successful strategy for picking up chunks of yards and still making points more likely.

Three teams — the Buccaneers, Ravens, and Vikings — were over 50% play-action on these downs. Another eight teams were over 40% and seven more teams hit the 30% threshold. Only two teams — the Broncos and Steelers — did not have a play-action attempt on first or second down in the first half.

Pittsburgh, despite having one of most high-powered offenses over the past few seasons, remains averse to using play-action at even a league avearge rate. The Steelers used play-action on just 2% of their drop backs in Week 1 and while some of that can be attributed to falling behind almost immediately Sunday night against the Patriots, Pittsburgh has put up the lowest play-action usage rate in three of the four seasons Sports Info Solutions and Football Outsiders have tracked the data. In the one year they weren’t last, they ranked 31st in 2015 and have not had a season with over 14% play-action, going as low as 11% in 2017 and 12% last year.

With play-makers all over the field, Pittsburgh didn’t really need to rely on more than just straight drop back passes to have success through the air, but now with little talent behind Juju Smith-Schuster, an increased rate of play-action could potentially help kickstart an offense that did not look good in the season’s opening week.

Shotgun vs Under Center

During the offseason, there was a brief debate over whether play-action was more effective from shotgun or with the quarterback under center. There were pros and cons for both in 2018. Last season play-action passes from shotgun had a higher completion percentage and lower interception rate, partly due to passes from shotgun being quicker and shorter with passes under center typically taking longer to develop downfield.

In Week 1, though, the scales tipped well in favor of shotgun passing. Play-action passes from shotgun had a significantly higher completion percentage, EPA per drop back, and success rate with a higher touchdown rate, lower interception rate, and lower sack rate. 

 

This might just be a one-week blip and can be corrected during the regular season, especially once under center-based teams like the Los Angeles Rams get better than they were in Week 1, but it’s definitely something to watch.

Final Takeaways

Play-action remains an incredibly effective strategy on offense and we’re seeing teams continue to embrace it more. Even so, we’re still not seeing everyone embrace it quite enough. Only 21.4% of the league-wide drop backs featured play-action in Week 1. That could ideally be around 30% for an entire season. We saw with teams like the Ravens and Cowboys that efficiency doesn’t decrease with more volume. That was also proven last year when the two best play-action teams in the league made it to the Super Bowl.

We got a glimpse at what the smartest teams in the league can do with a high rate of play fakes. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the league catches up.