Play-Action Fakes: Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing

In Part 1 of our Bills Passing Game Recap we looked at how Tom Brady and the Patriot passing attack dominated the Bills last Sunday and zeroed in on the emergence of Brandon LaFell. Here in Part 2, we explore how New England used play-action to keep the Buffalo defense off-balance throughout the game.

Play-Action Prowess

As demonstrated in the Bills Passing Game Preview, play-action involves simulating a handoff to draw the attention of one or more defenders, getting them to react to a run fake and leaving them out of position on throws down the field. On these play-action plays, enticing a defender just one or two steps towards the line of scrimmage can be enough to open up a throwing lane over the middle or even deep into the secondary.

Sunday in Buffalo, the Patriots executed 11 passes utilizing play-action, with Brady completing 8 of 10 for 118 yards and 2 touchdowns. The one instance not counted was a long defensive pass interference call on a throw to Julian Edelman in the end zone (video link), which set up a play-action touchdown reception by Tim Wright on the next snap. Having covered one of these plays – the long Brian Tyms touchdown – in our Offensive Play of the Week, we’ll delve into the rest of these plays to determine what made Patriots so successful with this scheme.

The first two times New England used play-action, they tried to hit a big play deep down the field. Facing 2nd and 10 near midfield, Brady is under center and the Patriots have 12 personnel in the game. The Bills counter with their base personnel and show Cover 2 in the secondary. As the play unfolds, Brady fakes a handoff to Stevan Ridley and the offense utilizes a two-receiver route:

Edelman runs a deep post while Tyms runs a go route. With only two receivers in the pattern, Buffalo is able to bracket both targets. Brady tries to hit Tyms deep but the pass falls incomplete.

Later in the 1st quarter New England again turns to play-action, trying to make a big play in the secondary. Following a Bills’ punt, the Patriots have 1st and 10 on their own 20-yard line. Brady is under center and the 12 personnel are on the field. Buffalo’s base defense is in the game showing Cover 3 in the backfield. Edelman comes in motion from left to right and forms a stack-slot with LaFell. Off the snap, LaFell runs a deep go route drawing the attention of the free safety and the cornerback to his side. This frees up room for Edelman on his corner route to beat the underneath coverage:

Edelman’s feet get tangled up with the defender, and both players fall to the turf, along with the ball. While this is another incomplete pass, it illustrates how New England is looking to play-action to generate a vertical passing game.

Josh McDaniels used play-action for two big first-down conversions in the 4th quarter. On this first play, the Patriots face a 2nd and 10 situation on their own 20-yard line. Brady is under center and New England’s 11 personnel are on the field. Buffalo counters with their base defense and the secondary displays Cover 2 coverage. Edelman is sent in motion into, but then away from, the ball, and runs a simple out route on the left:

The only player who is fooled on this snap is Stephon Gilmore. As the secondary settles into Cover 4, Edelman’s fake to the inside turns around Gilmore. This momentary confusion of the cornerback frees up the sideline for Brady and his receiver to link up for a big first-down conversion.

New England turned to play-action one last time on Sunday for a huge conversion. With just over five minutes left, the Patriots have an 8-point lead but face a long 1st and 15 situation from their own 15-yard line. Brady is under center and the offense has the 11 personnel on the field. Buffalo’s base defense shows Cover 1 for this play. Brady fakes a run to Brandon Bolden and New England sends two receivers out, Edelman and LaFell. Both receivers run to the first-down marker, and Brady throws to Edelman on the “back shoulder fade”:

As with the other plays highlighted in this piece, the play-action fake does not fool the defense, but the Patriots are still able to make a big play here. Quarterback and receiver execute the back shoulder throw to perfection and the defender does not have a chance to break on the ball.


Heading into this week, we posited that New England could exploit the Buffalo linebackers using play-action concepts. While the Patriots used play-action successfully, their production was not due to the Bills falling for run fakes. On just one occasion ‒ the Tyms touchdown pass ‒ was a defender caught looking in the backfield. On the other plays, the offensive players simply beat their counterparts in one-on-one matchups. Given how well New England was able to throw the ball after a simulated run, if the Patriots can again stay patient despite poor results from the ground Thursday night, the play-action passing game should prove effective.

In our wrap-up to Part 1 we drew inspiration from Armageddon, reflecting on how Brandon LaFell’s continued development could lead to him to play A.J. Frost to Brady’s Harry Stamper. Going forward LaFell might even find more room on play-action plays. (Damn. Max just got blown off the asteroid; prepare the world for bad news.) If the Patriots can establish a running attack, that will force the linebackers to respect the run fakes. (I’m not sure they can drill 250 feet in an hour, with only one transmission and one gear box.) That, plus Tyms extending the secondary vertically, will open up room for LaFell and other receivers underneath. (Wait, someone has to stay and detonate the bomb? Damn.) Despite the slow start, the Patriots’ offense looks to be slowly rounding into fine form in time for Jets Week. (Yay, humanity is saved. Now the cable networks can blame which party caused the asteroid in the first place).

Roll credits (video link).

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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