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What Is the Play-Action Pass?

Play-action pass is one of the most commonly used terms in American football, yet very few people truly understand what it means. And, you certainly would not want to embarrass yourself by asking your friends during an exciting match what “play-action pass” means. Not to worry, we got your back – read on!

What is the play-action pass? Let’s explore the term and its application in a football game.

Key Takeaways

  • The play-action pass, also known as fake play, is a passing play under the disguise of a run. The quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back and makes the defenders into believing that a running play is about to happen. When defenders expect the run and move out of a position of their pass coverage, the quarterback executes a forward pass to receivers and gains yardage.
  • The move is often used when the offensive teams have successfully gained yards on standard running plays, which makes the fake more believable and effective in their subsequent plays. 

How Does the Play-Action Pass Work?

To execute a good play-action pass, the entire offense has to be aligned with the quarterback–not only the running back to whom he faked the handoff! Also, he has to align with the receivers, tight end, and offensive guards which they have to come together to sell the fake. 

To see a play-action pass in action: 

  • The quarterback receives the snap and drops the ball behind.
  • He extends his arm wide as if he was handing the ball off to the rushing running back. 
  • The left guard comes across to the right side to help sell the fake by pretending to block the defenders for the running back.
  • The receiver also comes forward to pretend to block one of the defenders over the line. 
  • The quarterback then pulls the ball back and puts on his pitching stance, while the running back pretends to carry the ball and charge forward.
  • At this point, all the defenders are out of position to intercept a pass, and the receivers then break off into their pass routes.
  • The quarterback then passes the ball to the receivers and the receivers run to gain yards. 

According to FiveThirtyEight, a data science blog, a play-action pass is still very effective in the NFL and has been underutilized by coaches. 

What Makes a Successful Play Action Pass?

In addition to the entire offense side’s effort to perform the fake play-action pass, the success of the play-action also depends on the number of rushing plays prior to the attempted fake. The defense side is more likely to catch the bait of a play-action pass if the offensive team has had a successful run before. 

It also depends on how well the quarterback lures the linebackers and quickly identifies his potential ball receivers afterward. Some quarterbacks are more excellent at executing a play-action pass than others. 

Take Tom Brady as an outstanding example. In many games where he applied the play-action pass technique, Tom does an exceptional job of fooling the linebackers with his shoulder-sinking movements while quickly scanning for the target receiver right after carrying his fake handoff.  

By dipping his shoulders as if he was passing the ball, he was able to confuse the defenders at the second and third level. This is because the defense at the third and deep levels is sometimes taught to read the quarterback’s movements to identify a possible pass. 

What Is The Difference Between RPO And Play Action?

A play-action pass is a fake running play that turns into a passing play right from the beginning. Whereas the run-pass option (RPO) is referred to the quarterback’s double options of run and pass based on reading the defenses in the field.

Play-action aims to fool the defenders, and RPO aims to exploit their weaknesses by making one of the two possible moves. Although both make passes, one does right from the start with a fake, and the other does it when the opponent makes the wrong move. 

Closing Thoughts

Now you have learned that the play-action pass is a ‘fake first, pass later’ sort of play aimed to lure defenders out of their protective pass coverage. This is so the quarterback can make a yardage-earning pass. 

As always, feel free to let us know in the comment section below if we missed out anything. 

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