Play action can be an extremely effective way of fooling a defense to move the ball downfield. The goal of play action is for the offense to fake the run which gets the defense flowing towards the backfield. This hopefully gets the linebackers and possibly the secondary to run up towards the line of scrimmage, which opens up space for the wide receivers and tight ends to run behind them.
Play action has become a valuable weapon in Washington’s passing game throughout Kirk Cousins’s years as the starter. Cousins is consistently praised as the league’s best play action passer. Part of Washington’s success running play action can be attributed to how well their offensive line sells the run by making run blocks against the defensive line before moving into pass protection. The other part of that equation is Cousins’s ability to sell the run with the fake handoff.
Cousins does an excellent job of showing the ball for a defense to believe a run play is coming. Sometimes a quarterback will fake the run with only an empty hand or quickly flash the ball to his running back, causing the play to lose some of the deceptiveness of the fake. That is because the defense doesn’t see the ball in front of the runner’s pocket.
Of course, most run fakes can make the linebackers hesitate for a moment, which can be enough to create space for receivers, but showing the ball could make them hold a bit longer while routes develop down the field.
However, the nuances of the play action pass don’t stop there.
Last Thursday Night on Thanksgiving, Cris Collinsworth pointed out something interesting about how Cousins’s play action fake is exactly like his regular handoff. Is that common for quarterbacks around the NFL? Obviously it’s a desired skill, but do all quarterbacks consistently repeat their handoff mechanics on run plays to maximize the deceptiveness on play action plays?
Well, I’m not entirely sure, but thanks to the great Ken Anderson’s, “The Art of Quarterbacking” I learned that this is something that requires a lot of work.
According to Anderson, “The quarterback actually must stick the ball in front of the runner’s pocket with the same motion that he uses on all of his handoffs, and he must allow the defense to see it heading there, before he pulls it back. This is an art and it requires a lot of work, plus the coordination of both the runner and the offensive line.”
Due to Cousins’s success with the play action pass I assume he’s better at repeating his handoff delivery to fool defenses in comparison to the majority of NFL quarterbacks.
The next two play examples display Cousins normal handoff and then a fake. The second play is the play when Collinsworth pointed out Cousins’s ability to repeat his handoff.
The first play is an outside zone run by Samaje Perine (#32) on 1st and 10 from inside the red zone. Washington is in 13 personnel tied at 10 late in the 4th quarter. Prior to the play, Cousins motions TE Niles Paul (#84) to the right side of the formation.
When the play begins the line shifts to the left side for an outside zone run. Cousins extends the ball and hands it off to Perine, who chooses the “bang” read for two yards. Nothing special, but the art of this play is in how the design and Cousins’s handoff sets up the next play.
On 2nd and 8 Washington is lined up in 13 personnel again, only this time the formation is flipped with the right side as the strong side and TE Jeremy Sprinkle (#87) motioning to the left side of the formation. WR Josh Doctson (#18) is also lined up on the left. He’s also shaded closer to inside the numbers than on the previous play when he was outside of them. This is partly due to the hash, but may also have to do with the spacing required to run his route to the inside and break to the outside.
This play is identical to the outside zone run Washington called a play before up until the handoff – only flipped. The line shifts to the right and Cousins extends, shows the ball at the mesh point, and sells the fake by finishing the “handoff” by mimicking his handoff mechanics before readying to throw. That includes keeping his eyes on the runner’s pocket the whole way through his motion and running through the handoff once he fakes.
Before breaking down the rest of the play I want to point out how the two handoff motions are nearly identical. The only difference is the play side.
This gets the linebackers to flow towards the right and also forces the members of the secondary to hesitate. A key part of the fake here is how Cousins then acts like he’s reading to throw to the right side of the field. This, in combination with the fake, causes the key defender, Janoris Jenkins (#20), to open up towards the right side of the field. Doctson does a nice job of running towards the inside part of the field and breaking outside when Jenkins is turned. Cousins then works his eyes across the field when he gets to the back of his drop and positions himself to make a pass to Doctson.
Jenkins attempts to recover, but Doctson has some separation as he breaks to the outside part of the end zone. Cousins throws a good pass with anticipation for Doctson that results in six points and the game winning touchdown.
The broadcast replay provides a great angle of the fake on this play.
Repeating the handoff delivery as a quarterback has more positive effects than what Anderson calls a “lazy man’s fake.” A well executed fake that is identical to a running play can earn more yards of separation for receivers than one that only makes the linebackers hesitate. Or perhaps the defense could not react at all if they study a quarterback’s tendencies closely. Another benefit listed by Anderson is that successful play action passes can make linebackers hesitate in their run coverage assignments long enough for a running back to make some good yardage.
This subtlety can open up a lot of different aspects for an offense. Play action passes are a staple in the Washington offense. Cousins values the art of his play faking ability and it’s shown in how difficult he makes it for opposing defenses to recognize run or pass.