What Is Play Action In Football? Explained

What Is Play Action In Football? Explained

Football is like a chess match, in which strategy and deception blend on the field. One of the best tactics that can be used in this war is play action, a deceptive maneuver that can disorganize defenses and give scoring opportunities. This article explains play action, its definition, how it came about, and its execution.

What Is Play Action In Football? Explained

Demystifying Play Action: A Feint for Big Gains

Picture a quarterback pretending to hand the ball off to a running back before quickly pulling it back and throwing a laser-like pass downfield. That’s what play-action is all about. It is an illusionary play designed to make defenders believe that they are facing a run, only for them to be surprised by an unexpected pass at the eleventh hour.

This strategic feint can be incredibly effective. By bringing linebackers up closer and manipulating defensive positions through play action, there are chances for open receivers and big plays.

A Legacy of Deception: The History of Play-Action

Play-action did not emerge recently, as some may think, but has been with football since time immemorial, where quarterbacks would pretend to do something else entirely as misdirection. However, sophisticated defensive schemes in the 1950s and 1960s saw them return to using this technique.

Legendary coaches such as Vince Lombardi or Don Shula knew that sometimes illusions are good. They included it in their attacking strategies, employing confusion instead of guessing games against enemy defenses all over America. Today, play action continues to serve as one of many building blocks of offense in football at any level.

Executing the Deception: The Mechanics of Play Action

But what does “play action” mean? Well, for starters, it involves several key elements that need impeccable execution if it is going to be successful:

  • Pre-Snap Setup: Before the snap, offensive players strategically position themselves to avoid defenders’ easy identification and create opportunities for faking or tricking the opposition. Running backs, for example, may pretend to block at the line, while offensive line members appear to be ready for a run play. This visual cue must support the fake defense.
  • Quarterback Mechanics: It’s time for the quarterback to play the role of an orchestra conductor in play-action. After receiving the snap, they’ll go through the motions of a handoff to the running back. The “fake” should be believable because it resembles a genuine one. In addition, while scanning the opponents for weaknesses or open receivers downfield, quarterbacks’ eyes remain glued to their targets.
  • Offensive Line: Of course, play-action would be useless without the ‘O’ linemen’s participation! Initially, they needed to block as if there was going to be a run, but suddenly, when the QB keeps the ball smoothly, switch over to pass protection. For that reason, good timing and communication among the people involved are vital, since they guarantee that the quarterback will have enough space before he throws.

The success of play action depends on the efforts of every member of the offensive team. Proper execution by all involved parties leaves the defense in the mud during the rainy season, creating opportunities for game-changing play.

Strategic Importance: A Web of Deception

The beauty of play action is its ability to confuse defenders and create openings for offenses, exploiting them even further. Let’s learn more about its strategic importance:

  • Drawing in Defenders: The concept of drawing in defenders is akin to presenting a large, succulent steak to a ravenous dog. This is what play action does for linebackers. By faking the handoff, the quarterback lulls these linebackers into committing to the run, causing them to become stuck on their feet once the ball hits the air. This is an essential opportunity for receivers to get open and expose the vacant middle of the field.
  • Opening Up the Passing Game: Successful play action not only impacts linebackers but also disrupts the entire defensive scheme. In anticipation of a run, safeties might cheat closer to the line of scrimmage, leaving deep zones unguarded. The cornerbacks may also be one step slower on their coverage assignments because they initially focus on fake runs. Such factors create disparities within coverages that quarterbacks can exploit with well-timed throws.
  • Balancing the Offense: Unpredictability is key to a healthy offense. Play action keeps defenses honest by making them respect both pass and run plays equally. If a defense overcommits to stopping the run after seeing a fake handoff like this, then they become susceptible to running-back option passes. Conversely, if they read too much pass action in place, an intricately designed running play will find gaps for major gains. This unsettles opposing defenses and allows offenses to dictate what happens next during football games.

From Theory to Practice: Play Action on the Big Stage

Let us now see how play action translates into actual scenarios:

  • Breakdown of a Play: Imagine a recent NFL game in which two backs flanked a QB in shotgun formation. The quarterback initiates the play by snapping out the tailback, prompting the middle linebacker to aggressively attack the run play. Simultaneously, the receiver’s vacated zone for the linebacker was the slot. The passer then delivered it straight onto his path for some huge yards using one laser-like throw. This example is a play-action pass that took advantage of the defense’s weakness.
  • Success Stories: During his illustrious career, Tom Brady, master of manipulating defenses, utilized play action to perfection. Play action was often used by the New England Patriots under him to free up Julian Edelman and other receivers on several occasions. The Chiefs’ use of play action has been key in enhancing Mahomes’ outstanding arm talent. The Mahomes team’s multiple route combinations and scrambling ability make them a threat whenever they are on the field because their opponents must respect both the run and the pass.


Even though play action is not a novel trick in football, it remains highly effective. Through employing deception and execution in strategic unison, play action demands responses from defenses and also opens doors for success for offenses. As such tactics continue to evolve over time, so will play action. But one thing has never changed: this tactical weapon will remain one of the standard tools for ensuring successful games on the offensive side of football for generations to come.

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