ITP Glossary: Play Action

Football is littered with specialized terminology. From sugar the A gaps to Y-cross concept, commentators rarely get to explain everything you need to know before the next play. Inside The Pylon’s glossary was developed to give fans a deeper understanding of the game through clear explanations, as well as image and video examples. Please contact us with any terms or phrases you’d like to know more about.

Play Action

The play action pass is an offensive design where the quarterback fakes a handoff or a toss to a running back before dropping back into the pocket to execute a passing play. The concept seeks to entice defenders into flowing forward toward the apparent running play, opening up throwing lanes and receivers in the secondary.

The first example comes from the Cleveland Browns and their 2015 game against the Tennessee Titans. Facing 2nd and 8 on their own 40-yard line, Johnny Manziel (#2) is under center with 12 offensive personnel on the field, using a pro formation to the right with tight end Gary Barnidge (#82) lined up as an upback in the backfield. Tennessee has their base 3-4 defense in the game with both outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage, showing Cover 6 in the secondary:NFLReview2ClevelandPlay1Still1

Cleveland looks to stretch the field vertically, with Brian Hartline (#83) running a deep in cut from the left while Travis Benjamin (#11) runs a straight vertical route from the right. As these routes develop, Manziel fakes the inside run to running back Isaiah Crowell:


In this Cover 6 coverage, the Titans have the Cover 2 look to Benjamin’s side of the field. Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh (#24) is in press alignment over the WR while safety Michael Griffin (#33) is responsible for the deep half of the field.

Prior to the snap, you can see Sensabaugh with outside leverage on Benjamin, looking to force the WR towards the middle of the field where there is help. But, as the play unfolds, Griffin is caught with his eyes in the backfield while Benjamin races deep into the secondary:

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From this angle you can see Griffin try to race back towards his half of the field – but it is too late:

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Manziel drops in a perfect rainbow and the Browns have an early lead.

Washington also used this design for a big play this year against the New York Giants. The offense lines up with Kirk Cousins under center and a heavy run formation, with reserve tackle Tom Compton (#68) reporting as an eligible receiver. Alfred Morris (#46) is the single running back in the backfield. Compton lines up in a wing alignment to the right with Jackson on the outside. To the left side of the formation, tight end Jordan Reed (#86) sets in his two-point stance just outside left tackle Trent Williams (#71) with Pierre Garçon (#88) split out wide:NFLReview12WashingtonStill1

The Giants have their base 4-3 defense on the field, with Jason Pierre-Paul (#90) in a two-point stance outside the LT. Strongside linebacker Devon Kennard (#59) settles near the line of scrimmage as well, just outside of Compton’s right shoulder. Neither safety is playing deep, with free safety Landon Collins (#21) and Brandon Merriweather (#22) showing a two-high look before the snap:


The Giants roll to Cover 1, with Collins coming toward the flat and Merriweather playing the deep single-high safety. Washington uses play action design here, faking a split zone concept. Off the snap Cousins opens to his left and shows the outside zone run to Morris, with the RB aimed at the left edge. The offensive line ‒ including Compton from the wing ‒ all block to the left, while Reed cuts across to the backside edge where Kennard is waiting. After the fake, Cousins uses a half-roll back to the right side, where his TE is ready to keep a clean pocket:


Washington uses the Yankee concept here: A max protection, two-receiver route that they like to use with this pair of receivers – as indicated by the ITP Glossary entry on this route structure. As in the example, Garçon runs a deep over route, while Jackson runs a deep post. As the play develops all three linebackers flow to the run fake, including Kennard on the backside.

While the second-level defenders try to retreat, bad things are happening in the secondary. Garçon gets inside of Prince Amukamara (#20) and has a step on the cornerback. On the other side, Jackson gets inside leverage on Jayron Housley (#28), beating off the attempted jam. Meanwhile, the safety to that side of the field, Merriweather, is staring into the backfield and actually takes a step or two down toward the line of scrimmage:WashingtonGif1Final

Jackson sets up his inside break by using a dino stem, bending the route to the outside. This prompts Merriweather to widen in response, creating an alley for Jackson to break back to the inside and get underneath:


Merriweather attempts the baseball turn to try and stay in position, but it is too late; the ball is coming out and Jackson’s speed creates separation:

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Cousins delivers a beautiful throw coming out of the play action fake and half-roll. Jackson runs under the pass at the 14-yard line and cruises into the end zone with the score.

From this angle, we can see how the safety gets caught peeking in the backfield, and then gets twisted by Jackson’s great post route:

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Teams, especially at the collegiate level, can create the same confusion in the secondary when they utilize run / pass option plays. One such offense is Oklahoma State, who uses the run/pass option scheme to influence second-level defenders and open up options in the intermediate passing game. Here, Mason Rudolph (2) lines up in the pistol with 11 offensive personnel on the field, with slot formation on the left and FB/TE hybrid Jeremy Seaton (#44) in a wing slot alignment on the right. Texas Tech has their 4-2-5 defense in the game showing Cover 6:CFBPreview10OKPlay3Still1

Rudolph and running back Chris Carson (#32) meet at the mesh point, before the QB pulls the football in and looks to hit David Glidden (#13) on a shallow crossing route:

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Not only does the run / pass look influence the backside linebacker toward the line of scrimmage, but the Cowboys also catch the Red Raiders in a blitz, with both the playside linebacker and the slot cornerback crashing toward the line. This opens up a big throwing window for Rudolph to find his favorite target.

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Mark Schofield wrote this entry. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

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All video and images courtesy NFL Gameday and Draft Breakdown.

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