play action pass

Play-Action Pass Concept in Football (Complete Guide)

One such strategy that has gained immense popularity in football at all levels is the play-action pass concept.

This concept involves deceiving the defense by simulating a running play, only to execute a pass play instead.

Here we look at the details of the play-action pass concept, exploring its history, execution, benefits, and notable examples.

The History of Play-Action Pass Concept

The play-action pass concept has been a part of football for decades, with its origins dating back to the early 20th century.

Coaches and players recognized the potential of using deception to gain an advantage over the defense, leading to the development of this innovative strategy.

One of the earliest instances of the play-action pass concept can be traced back to the 1920s, when legendary coach Pop Warner introduced it as part of his offensive playbook.

Warner’s teams were known for their innovative approach to the game, and the play-action pass concept was just one of many strategies he employed.

Over the years, the play-action pass concept has evolved and become more sophisticated.

Coaches and offensive coordinators have continuously refined their techniques, incorporating new variations and wrinkles to keep defenses guessing.

Today, it is a staple in almost every team’s offensive arsenal.

Why the play-action pass is the best play in football

Execution of Play-Action Pass Concept

The execution of the play-action pass concept involves several key elements that must be executed with precision to maximize its effectiveness.

Let’s break down each step:

1. Pre-Snap Read

Before the play begins, the quarterback and the offense must assess the defensive alignment and identify potential weaknesses.

This includes analyzing the positioning of the linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks, as well as any blitz packages that may be employed by the defense.

2. Running Back’s Role

The running back plays a crucial role in the play-action pass concept.

They must convincingly simulate a running play by executing a convincing fake handoff to draw the attention of the defense.

This requires precise timing and coordination with the quarterback.

3. Offensive Line’s Responsibility

The offensive line’s responsibility is to sell the run play by firing off the line of scrimmage as if they were run blocking.

This helps create the illusion of a running play and forces the defense to commit to stopping the run.

4. Quarterback’s Decision-Making

Once the fake handoff is executed, the quarterback must quickly assess the defense and make a decision based on the pre-snap read.

They have the option to either throw the ball to an open receiver or tuck it and run if the defense collapses on the play-action fake.

5. Wide Receiver’s Routes

The wide receivers play a crucial role in the play-action pass concept by running routes that exploit the defense’s vulnerabilities.

They must create separation from their defenders and be ready to make a catch when the quarterback delivers the ball.

The video below talks about Kyle Shanahan’s play-action scheme (viewable only on YouTube due to copyright):

Benefits of Play-Action Pass Concept

The play-action pass concept offers several benefits that make it a valuable tool in an offense’s arsenal.

Let’s explore some of these benefits:

  • Deception: The play-action pass concept relies on deception to confuse the defense. By simulating a running play, it forces the defense to commit to stopping the run, creating opportunities for big plays in the passing game.
  • Exploiting Defensive Aggression: Defenses often become more aggressive when they anticipate a running play. The play-action pass concept takes advantage of this aggression by creating opportunities for receivers to get open downfield.
  • Opening Up the Run Game: The threat of a successful play-action pass can open up running lanes for the offense. When the defense is forced to respect the passing game, it creates more space for running backs to exploit.
  • Time for Quarterback: The play-action pass concept buys the quarterback extra time in the pocket. By freezing the linebackers and safeties with the play-action fake, it allows the quarterback to survey the field and make better decisions.

How to Defend Against the Play-Action Pass

Defending against a play-action pass can be challenging, as this type of play is designed to deceive the defense into thinking it’s a run play when it’s actually a pass play.

Here are some tips for effectively defending against play-action:

Read your Keys

Defensive players are often taught to “read their keys,” or look at certain players (usually offensive linemen) to get an initial clue about whether a play is a run or pass.

If the offensive linemen fire out low and hard, it usually indicates a run.

If they stand up or drop back, it’s typically a pass.

However, in play-action, linemen will simulate run-blocking to sell the fake.

This makes reading keys a bit trickier, and defenders will need to be disciplined and rely on their training.

Discipline of the Linebackers and Safeties

Linebackers and safeties need to be especially disciplined against play-action.

Their initial reaction might be to come up to stop the run, but doing so can leave space behind them for a pass.

They need to quickly recognize when a play is play-action and get back into their pass coverage responsibilities.

This often requires them to “read” the running back and quarterback rather than the offensive line.

Defensive Line Pressure

A great way to disrupt play-action is with pressure from the defensive line.

If the defensive line can get into the backfield quickly, it can disrupt the timing of the play and potentially lead to a sack or hurried throw.

Secondary Coverage

In play-action, the secondary must maintain their coverage responsibilities until it’s clear that the play is a run.

They must resist the temptation to come up in run support too quickly, which can leave receivers open downfield.

Practice and Film Study

The best way to improve at defending play-action is through practice and film study.

By repeatedly seeing play-action in practice, defenders can get better at recognizing it.

And by studying film, they can learn the tendencies of the teams they’re playing against, which can provide clues about when play-action is likely to be used.

Notable Examples of Play-Action Pass Concept

Throughout the history of football, there have been numerous memorable examples of the play-action pass concept being executed to perfection.

Let’s take a look at a few notable examples:

1. Super Bowl XXXIV: “The Tackle Game” – St. Louis Rams vs. Tennessee Titans

In one of the most iconic plays in Super Bowl history, the St. Louis Rams executed a play-action pass to perfection.

With two minutes left in the game, quarterback Kurt Warner faked a handoff to running back Marshall Faulk, drawing the defense toward the line of scrimmage.

Warner then delivered a perfectly placed pass to wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who sprinted into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

2. Peyton Manning’s Play-Action Mastery

Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, was a master of the play-action pass concept.

His ability to sell the fake handoff and deliver accurate passes downfield made him a nightmare for opposing defenses.

Manning’s success with the play-action pass concept played a significant role in his numerous accolades and Super Bowl victories.

3. Kansas City Chiefs’ Play-Action Success

The Kansas City Chiefs, under the guidance of head coach Andy Reid, have become known for their explosive play-action passing game.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ ability to execute the play-action fake and deliver deep strikes to his receivers has been a key factor in the team’s success.

The Chiefs’ play-action pass concept has consistently kept defenses off-balance and allowed them to create big plays.

FAQs – Play-Action Pass

1. What is the purpose of the play-action pass concept?

The play-action pass concept aims to deceive the defense by simulating a running play, only to execute a pass play instead.

It creates opportunities for big plays in the passing game by exploiting the defense’s commitment to stopping the run.

2. How does the play-action pass concept work?

The play-action pass concept involves the quarterback faking a handoff to the running back, while the offensive line and wide receivers execute their respective roles to sell the run play.

The goal is to freeze the defense and create open passing lanes for the quarterback to exploit.

3. What are the benefits of using the play-action pass concept?

The play-action pass concept offers several benefits, including deception, exploiting defensive aggression, opening up the run game, and providing the quarterback with extra time in the pocket.

4. How can a quarterback effectively execute the play-action fake?

A quarterback must have good ball-handling skills and timing to effectively execute the play-action fake.

They must sell the fake by extending the ball towards the running back and maintaining proper footwork to make it appear as realistic as possible.

5. Can the play-action pass concept be used in different offensive formations?

Yes, the play-action pass concept can be used in various offensive formations, including shotgun, single-back, and under center formations.

The key is to execute the fake handoff convincingly and create opportunities for the quarterback to make successful passes.

6. Are there any risks associated with the play-action pass concept?

While the play-action pass concept can be highly effective, it also carries some risks.

If the defense does not bite on the fake, it can lead to pressure on the quarterback or potential turnovers.

Proper execution and reading of the defense are crucial to minimize these risks.

7. How can a defense defend against the play-action pass concept?

Defending against the play-action pass concept requires discipline and proper recognition of the fake.

Linebackers and safeties must read their keys and not be overly aggressive in committing to stopping the run.

Maintaining proper gap integrity and communication among defenders is essential.

8. Can the play-action pass concept be effective in short-yardage situations?

Yes, the play-action pass concept can be effective in short-yardage situations.

The defense often expects a running play in these situations, making them susceptible to play-action fakes.

A well-executed play-action pass can catch the defense off-guard and result in a successful completion.

9. How can a team incorporate the play-action pass concept into their offensive game plan?

A team can incorporate the play-action pass concept into their offensive game plan by practicing the necessary techniques and timing.

Coaches and offensive coordinators must design plays that suit their personnel and take advantage of the defense’s tendencies.

Film study and understanding the opponent’s defensive schemes can also help in devising effective play-action pass plays.

10. Can the play-action pass concept be used in youth football?

Yes, the play-action pass concept can be used in youth football.

However, it requires proper coaching and practice to ensure that the players understand their roles and execute the fake handoff convincingly.

Simplifying the concept and focusing on the fundamentals can help young players grasp the concept effectively.


The play-action pass concept is a powerful offensive strategy that has stood the test of time in football.

By deceiving the defense with a simulated running play, teams can create opportunities for big plays in the passing game.

The execution of the play-action pass concept involves precise timing, coordination, and reading of the defense.

It offers several benefits, including deception, exploiting defensive aggression, opening up the run game, and providing the quarterback with extra time in the pocket.

Notable examples of successful play-action passes can be found throughout the history of football, showcasing its effectiveness when executed correctly.

Whether it’s in the Super Bowl or youth football, the play-action pass concept remains a valuable tool for teams looking to gain an edge on the field.

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