By Nathan Coleman (@JHawkChalk89)

Modern NFL offenses are evolving to keep up with the torrid onslaught of scoring in the league. While some teams champion adaptability to a new frantic pace of scoring, other offenses remain rigid, clinging onto football truisms of old. To combat the offensive fireworks of today’s game, sharp organizations look to differentiate in order to gain an edge.

Discord in DC?

The Washington Redskins find themselves in a precarious position in 2019. The old DC scoring attack contains more ambiguity than talent. Like many former Redskin coaches, Jay Gruden finds himself broiling on the perpetual hot seat. The coaching staff is tasked with the burden of identifying a Week 1 starter that will more than likely determine the staff’s fate.

Fan Favorite, and bookend stalwart, Trent Williams status is up in the air, as he is at odds with the organization. The much-praised Washington backfield has missed a combined 34 games the past two seasons. Of which, oft injured Jordan Reed says “Hold my beer!”.

Speaking of tight end, no franchise has spent more money on the position over the last two years with little results to show from the excess spending. To add insult to injury (pun intended), the Redskins are hexed, having dealt with more injury than any other team in the NFL over the last 5 seasons.

The question remains how can this offensive group full of uncertainty, negative injury variance, and lack of talent or experience hope to set the league on fire? It’s going to come down to the coaches optimizing play-calling, design, and frequency. A necessary edge will have to be differentiation. One way the coaching staff can separate is by utilizing play- action at a much higher rate.

Misconceptions About the Play Fake

There are a lot of preconceived notions about how play action works but I’m going to list what we know to be true. In his excellent guest series on Football Outsiders, Athletic writer Ben Baldwin debunks several misconceptions about play action.

  1. Namely, team’s effectiveness on play fakes is not related to run frequency or success over the course of a single game or season. 
  2. Running doesn’t set up play action but coaches (and many fans) believe it does.
  3. Offenses that run more use play action more frequently.
  4. Play fakes are effective both when trailing and when leading.
  5. Play Action effectiveness does not diminish as its used more frequently in a game or season

What does this have to do with our favorite squad in Burgundy and Gold? The last point really sticks out in my mind, but more on that in just a little bit. Lets looks quickly at why play action is deadly and underutilized.

The Lethality of Play Action

Per Sports Info Solutions (SIS), the three teams that utilized the play-fake the most in 2019 were the Patriots, Rams, and Chiefs. It’s no coincidence that these three teams also found themselves on deep playoff runs. The creator of Air Yards, Josh Hermsmeyer, points out that play action passes average 1.39 more yards per attempt than any other play during the 2018 season. This was corroborated by Warren Sharp, who also stresses the potency of play action. Sharp noted the stark improvement seen in play fakes below.

From the chart above we can see several notable developments in addition to the boost in yards per attempt. The pass fake creates extra separation for receivers and vacates space given up by biting linebackers, which in turn gives QBs larger throwing windows. It also slows down the pass rush as the sack rate decrease by a significant 2%. You will note that rookie Dwyane Haskins posted an impressive 46 touchdowns and 135.4 QB rating from a clean pocket per PFF.

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Most notably, play action is the key to explosive plays (Wash. ranked 25th in 2018), an area of struggle that new offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell has wisely harped on several times.

Per Sharp, play action deep passes (passes thrown more than 20 yards) are truly a weapon, resulting in 15.5 yards per attempt(11.6 for non-PA), .52 expected points per attempt (.23 for non-PA) , and a positive play percentage of 41.3% (34.2% for non-PA). Explosive pass plays are something that Haskins also excelled at in college. Per SIS, 70% of Haskins throws that traveled 30 yards down the field or more were on target passes accounting for 10 TDs, 1 INT, and a 124.3 QB Rating.

Evidence in Action

Instead of protecting young signal callers with a strong run game why not insulate the offense with an extra dose of play fakes? Per PFF, 42.9% of Lamar Jackson’s pass attempts came out of play action. Jackson enjoyed 8.8 yards per attempt (5.9 without PA) and his completion percentage skyrocketed from 57% to 72.7% when using play-action. Fellow rookie passer Josh Allen saw his lowly completion percentage of 53% jump to 63.6% with play actions passes along with a boost to his YPA and QB Rating. Jets starter Sam Darnold also saw an increase in success rate (52%, + 8% change), YPA (7.5, +1.2 change), and QB rating (84.3, +10 change).

Let’s not forget that veteran signal caller Case Keenum will more than likely see at a least start or two. You can probably guess what I’m going to say next, Case could benefit significantly from an increase in PA. In his excellent series Metrics that Matter, Scott Barrett provides a stark contrast on Case Keenum’s efficiency when utilizing play fakes.

Keenum is number one with a bullet in rating differential from 2015-2017. In 2018 with the Broncos, Keenum again showcase the discrepancy improving his QB rating to 105.5 (80.6 Non-PA) and 8.7 YPA (6.4 Non-PA) when using play fakes. Jay Gruden would do well to “establish” the play fake versus establishing the run.

How Much is Too Much?

Teams using play action on 25% of drop backs or more. (Graph is courtesy of the Sharp Football Preview)

As Saturday Night Live has taught us, there can never be enough cowbell and in the same vein play action should know no limit. As noted above, you can see dramatic improvement across the board when implementing play fakes, yet the under-utilization remains an exploitable edge year to year.

To take it a step further, in his article from 538 , Hermsmeyer notes that there isn’t a magic number where it comes to play fakes being less effective as its used more frequently in a game. Instead he stresses that teams aren’t using play action nearly enough given its lethal potential.

The chart aboves indicate the NFL average of play action percentages cross referenced with the Redskins usage over the past three seasons. Every single year, Washington ranked outside the top 15 in play action attempts, this despite the offense finding constant amplified yards per attempt with play fakes throughout each year. 

In 2019 the Redskins should be the offense to further unlock the skeleton key known as play action. Use it at an exceedingly high rate and reap the benefits. Why favor the aggressiveness of the play fake versus treading in the water of conservatism? The team needs an edge and its doubtful that pure talent alone is going to allow this offense to rise above the crowd.

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