Using the play action pass in football is often a good way to draw defenders into the box (forcing Linebackers to defend the run) and open up space for your receivers in behind the defense. If done correctly, this can lead to some huge plays down the field for your offense. Play action pass plays can help to confuse defences, giving your receivers time to get open and providing easier reads for your QB’s to make. By adding elements of midirection to your play action passes, you can get your receivers wide open for easy receptions and big plays.
Play Action (PA) Outside Zone
The play we will be discussing in this article is actually a variation of one the most common play action pass plays. The most common version of this play involves a play action fake to the RB who runs an outside zone path. The TE runs a shoot underneath the formation while the flanker runs a comeback route and the slot (H) runs a drag over the formation. This version of the play looks like this:
When this play is run from a 2×2 squeeze formation, the playside flanker runs a corner route (ending up in the same spot he would on the comeback route), the Y runs a shoot underneath the formation and the other flanker runs the drag over the formation. The H receiver instead stays in pass protection to help seal the edge for the QB when he rolls out to throw. This is what the play looks like from a 2×2 squeeze formation:
The examples we will be focusing on in this article are variations of this concept from the same (and similar) condensed formations. Everything is run exactly the same, however, instead of the ‘H’ staying in pass protection to set the edge, he is now faking the outside zone block and releasing on a wheel route to the opposite side of the field. To account for the H receiver leaving the Defensive End unblocked, the Y will now fake the shoot underneath the formation and set up in pass protection for the QB and block the End. After completing the fake outside zone handoff, the RB will release on a flare route in order to draw defenders down to cover him out in the flat. This helps open up space in behind for the H receiver to run a wide open wheel route for an easy completion and big play.
Play #1 – PA Outside Zone + ‘H’ Wheel
One of the earliest examples of this play came in the 2018 Week 4 Game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Los Angeles Rams. On this play, the Rams are lined up in a 2×2 squeeze formation. The Y fakes the shoot underneath and sets up in pass protection for the QB, the X runs a corner route and the Z runs a drag over the formation. The H fakes blocking an outside zone path and then releases on a wheel route to the opposite side of the field. This play resulted in an easy 70 yard Touchdown to Rams receiver Cooper Kupp.
As you can see, the defense completely vacates the space to the right side of the field due to the play action and clearing out routes run by both flankers. Depsite the linebacker (#55 Anthony Barr) recognising Kupp was releasing across the field and turning to run with him, this was still a big mismatch for the defence as they had a slower linebacker trying to keep up with a much faster receiver. All the QB had to do was put the ball out in front for his receiver to go get it.
The next time this play was run was in the 2019 Week 1 Game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars and resulted in a 50 yard Touchdown to Chiefs’ receiver Sammy Watkins.
The following week, the exact same variation of this play was run in the 2019 Week 2 Game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Seattle Seahawks. Unfortunately the result of the play was an incompletion. However, you can see that the H receiver still comes open and there is plenty of space for QB Andy Dalton to lay the ball out in front of the receiver running the wheel. However, this does not happen because the QB’s feet aren’t set and he makes a bad throw, underthrowing the receiver. Similar to the Rams play, we see that a defender (the Seahawks’ CB) turns to chase after the wheel, chewing up space for the QB to throw the football. Even though this happens, the QB should still have an easy completion if he throws the ball higher and out in front of the receiver (just like Rams QB Jarred Goff did in the first example of this play). If the CB continues to be a problem, have your RB release a little shallower out to the flat and avoid drifting so far upfield. This will force the corner to come down and prevent him from play both the flat and the wheel route.
Play #2 – ‘Z’ motion + PA ‘X’ Wheel
Another example of this play appeared in the 2019 Week 2 Game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals when the 49ers ran a variation of the exact same concept. On this play the 49ers are lined up in a 3×1 bunch squeeze formation with the Y on the single side lined up in the TE position. The Z receiver motions into the backfield pre-snap, lining up in the Fullback position. The Z fakes a lead block for the RB then sets up in pass protection for the QB (blocking the End). The new playside flanker (H) created by the motion, runs a corner route while the Y runs a drag route over the formation. The new slot receiver (X) created by the motion fakes blocking an outside zone path then releases on a wheel route to the opposite side of the field. This play resulted in an easy 30 yard Touchdown to receiver Marquise Goodwin.
Play #3 – ‘X’ motion + PA ‘X’ Wheel
The next example came the following week in the 2019 Week 3 matchup between the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars with the Jaguars running another variation of this play action concept. Ironically, the Jaguars are running the same concept which the Kansas City Chiefs ran on them in Week 1. However the Jaguars have added a slight variation to it. On this play the Jaguars are lined up in a 3×1 bunch squeeze formation. The X receiver motions across the formation into the wing/slot squeeze position pre-snap. The playside flanker (Z) runs a fade; normally he would run a comeback but I assume that the Jaguars wanted him to run a fade to stress the defence and clear out space. The Y fakes a shoot path underneath the formation and sets up in pass protection for the QB (blocking the End). The new flanker (H) created by the motion runs a drag route over the formation. The X receiver fakes blocking an outside zone path then releases on a wheel route to the opposite side of the field.
As you can see, the motion reveals that the defence in in man coverage pre-snap as the CB (#26) follows the X receiver across the formation. However, the benefit of running play action is that it draws the defenders attention, forcing them to react to the run and concealing the slot receiver who is releasing on a wheel route to the opposite side of the formation. Despite being in man coverage, the CB gets lost in the play action and loses track of the receiver he is covering, leaving the X receiver wide open for what should have been an easy completion for a touchdown.
The problem was that the Left Tackle got beaten to the outside by the Defensive End, who was able to get into the backfield easily. A solution to this would be to have the RB run in front of the End to draw his attention away from the QB and buy him an extra second or two. Alternatively, the QB could have stepped up in the pocket to buy some time or just put a little more air under the ball to compensate for being forced to throw it early. By lofting the ball higher and out in front of the receiver, it would give the receiver a chance to adjust to the ball and make the catch.
Adding Misdirection to Play Action Pass Plays
As you can see, this variation to the stock-standard play action pass concept is incredibly effective, with each of the successful examples above resulting in easy touchdowns. Although some attempts were unsuccessful, both with bad throws and one with a defender reacting quickly and chewing up space, the wheel routes still had plenty of separation where the receiver could have easily made a big play and possibly scored. The misdirection aspect of this play makes it even more difficult for defenses to recognise what is happening, react and shut it down. By concealing the slot receiver by having them fake an outside zone blocking path, they can get lost in the box and have an easy, often uncovered release on the wheel route for a wide open catch. Even if a defender does run with them, it is likely to be a much slower linebacker who is unable to cover faster receivers. Once again, this concept can be run several different ways, with teams adding slight variations in the use of different formations and pre-snap motions to confuse the defense. This is a great example of how adding window dressing and variations can help to make your plays more effective and enable you to run them multiple times in a game without the defense figuring out what you are doing. As always I encourage you to be creative and continue to add variation and misdirection elements to your plays to make your offense more effective at moving the chains and scoring points.
If you have any questions or would like to add to this discussion, please feel free to comment in the section below.
Feature image photo credit:
photo credit: KA Sports Photos <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/27003603@N00/36048703513″>Andy Dalton</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>