49ersHub Classroom: The Play-Action Pass: An Equal and Opposite Reaction


Last week I wrote that the goal of any football play is finding a one-on-one match up to exploit. I need to ask our readership for a friendly amendment to my statement.

Indeed, a football offense wants to find a one-on-one matchup in its favor. However, adding deception can increase a play’s success exponentially.

Deception is not limited to one side of the ball; a defense can disguise any coverage to dupe a quarterback into throwing a pass he should not. The offense can return the favor and deceive the defense with counter runs, pump fakes, or flea flickers.

Nearly all runs in a football playbook, from Pop Warner to the pros, have a complimentary pass built from it. The play-action is not exotic; it’s a scheme to mimic a run, bringing the defenders into the line of scrimmage to create space at the second level and further downfield.

It sounds easy, but the success of a play-action pass needs carbon-copy consistency from the 11 players on offense.

The Believers

You’ve probably heard coaches talk about how critical a player’s first step is, and how it can determine how well the offense or defense executes a play.

For example, if the quarterback takes a weak first step, the likelihood his center steps on his foot or the timing of a route is amplified tremendously. A running back may take a slow, horizontal step before running downfield to take a handoff. The deliberate step allows a pulling guard or a lead block to gain speed and clear a running lane.

Defensive linemen and linebackers take a read step forward as their primary goal is to play the run first and pass second. Of course, there are plenty of defensive coverages that ask a lineman to drop into a passing lane, but it’s a gamble and could place him grossly out of position.

A play-action pass exploits the fundamentals of the front seven by sucking them a few yards forward to open passing lanes for inside- or outside-breaking routes.

The Deceivers

A great offensive coordinator stresses the importance of making a run or route look the same. Wide receivers who lack discipline on a route stem allow cornerbacks to jump patterns or combinations. Running plays are no different; leads, powers, and tosses all have a unique look, set of steps and blocks that need to be a carbon copy each time the offense runs the play.

The consistency in footwork and blocks are a critical part of the deception of the defense.

Behind the line of scrimmage, a quarterback and running back must sell the ball fake. It’s not enough for the quarterback to show the ball and then immediately bootleg in the opposite direction; a great fake handoff brings the middle linebackers into a scrum, blinding them from what’s happening behind an iron curtain.

Why It Works

Linebackers key on formations, motion, and lead blockers to unmask a play. Despite what some coaches tell young players, linebackers should never read the ball or peek over the offensive line to read the backs.

The offense flows to where the ball is going, taking the interior defensive line and the inside linebackers to the point of attack.

When the left guard pulls right down the line, the Mike and Jack (whatever you’d like to call the strong side ILB) linebackers flow to their left to blow up the lead block (the guard), fill gaps, and clog up the running lane. There are very few runs that send the lead blockers right and the ball carrier left without anyone to clear space.

A well-executed play-action exploits the linebacker’s read step. Using 16/17 Power as an example (above), if both inside linebackers read the lead blocks, the quarterback-running back ball fake is Oscar worthy, the quarterback can complete a short bootleg to the left and find an open receiver in the space the middle linebackers once occupied.

Further, with no linebackers to disrupt passing lanes, the secondary has little hope for a tipped pass or a bad read from the quarterback.

Last week, head coach and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said, “There’s a foundation to everyone’s scheme and how you teach people and the verbiage and how you try to move all of the chess pieces together and attack things. You adjust when you make defenses adjust…you can drop back and throw, you can do screens, you can do bootlegs, you can do play action, you could do zone read if we wanted to.” (Head Coach Kyle Shanahan. Press Conference – June 13, 2018)

Shanahan’s adjustment is another way of saying he wants to take advantage of a defense prime for a big play. A balanced attack of run and pass is one way to make the play-action a critical component of the 49ers’ offense this season.

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