What is Play Action? Unveiling Football’s Deceptive Tactics

In the dynamic realm of football strategy, few plays capture the essence of excitement and strategic finesse as effectively as the play-action pass. Play action is a deceptive dance on the gridiron, showcasing the quarterback’s mastery of misdirection in a brilliant spectacle.

Definition of Play Action

What is play action in football? In essence, it’s a cleverly disguised pass, designed to look like a run and surprise the defense. The quarterback, with the finesse of a seasoned magician, takes the snap, executes a motion as if handing off the ball to the running back, and then, in a moment of orchestrated chaos, reveals the ball is still in his possession. This clever ruse, when executed seamlessly, creates an opening for an exhilarating downfield pass.

Significance and Excitement in Football

The significance of the play-action pass extends beyond its role as a mere trickery; it embodies the strategic heartbeat of a football game.Teams deploy play action when dominating the run game, capitalizing on the defense’s commitment to thwart the perceived ground threat. Calculated deception sets the stage for thrilling moments, where a well-timed play-action pass can turn the game, keeping spectators on edge.

Executing a convincing fake, reading defense, and seizing the moment for a precision pass is the quarterback’s intricate challenge. Offensive line shifts from run-block to pass protection, receivers from blockers to explosive route-runners, revealing a nuanced ballet in seconds.

This article delves into play action, exploring mechanics, when to deploy for maximum impact, and dissecting common concepts in succinct detail. As we navigate this playbook, we’ll unravel the magic behind Peyton Manning’s mastery of play action, examine its distinctive features compared to the Run Pass Option (RPO), and highlight key techniques that make this deceptive play a true art form in the world of football strategy. Join us on a journey into the heart of play action, where every fake tells a story, and every pass carries the weight of strategic brilliance.

How Play Action Works

In the intricate chess match that is football, the play-action pass stands as a masterstroke of deception, a strategic ballet designed to keep defenses guessing. Let’s unravel the layers of this artful play, understanding the orchestration behind its success.

Deceptive Nature

Selling the Run:

At the heart of play action lies the art of selling the run. A successful play-action pass hinges on convincing the defense that a genuine running play is unfolding. The offensive line fires off the snap, mimicking the intensity of a run block. Simultaneously, the running back accelerates toward the line of scrimmage, executing a convincing fake handoff. The objective is to draw defenders towards the line, creating the illusion of an imminent run play.

Quarterback’s Role:

The quarterback, often the maestro orchestrating this symphony, plays a pivotal role in the deception. Following the snap, they execute a motion as if handing off the ball to the running back. This feigned commitment to the run is crucial, as it forces linebackers and safeties to react to the perceived threat. The quarterback’s ability to sell this fake, both with their body language and eye movement, sets the stage for the play’s success.

Running Back’s Involvement:

The running back becomes a crucial actor in this theatrical display. Post-fake, they continue their run towards the line of scrimmage, adding an extra layer to the illusion. While not receiving the ball, their commitment to the run ensures the defense remains uncertain about the play’s true nature. Additionally, some play-action plays incorporate the running back into pass protection or release them into a route, offering yet another variable for the defense to contend with.

Offensive Line’s Key Responsibilities

The offensive line transforms seamlessly from run-blocking to pass protection in the blink of an eye during a play-action pass. Initially exploding off the line, they engage with defenders, creating the illusion of a genuine running play. However, the linemen must quickly transition, halting their forward momentum to provide the quarterback with the protection required for a successful downfield pass. This split-second shift demands precision and synchronization among the offensive linemen, underscoring the importance of a well-coordinated unit.

Role of Receivers in Executing Play Action

Receivers play a crucial role in the execution of play action, contributing to the overall deception and creating opportunities downfield.

“Selling” the Block:

Receivers begin the play by appearing to block, contributing to the illusion of a running play. This initial blocking stance prompts defensive backs to focus on potential run support, diverting their attention away from the developing pass routes.

Route Execution:

As the play unfolds, receivers transition seamlessly from their initial blocking posture to executing their pass routes. This sudden shift catches defenders off guard, creating separation and opening windows for the quarterback to target downfield.

Exploiting Space:

Play-action passes often involve receivers running routes that capitalize on the gaps left by defenders who have committed to stopping the perceived run. Crossing routes and drag routes over the middle of the field are common, exploiting the vacated areas and providing the quarterback with viable passing options.

In essence, the success of a play-action pass hinges on the collective performance of the entire offensive unit, each player contributing to the deception and execution required to keep the defense off balance. As we delve deeper into the strategic nuances of play action, we uncover the intricate dance that unfolds on the football field, where every player plays a vital role in this deceptive symphony.

When to Call a Play Action Pass

In the strategic arsenal of football, the play-action pass is not just a trick; it’s a calculated maneuver designed to exploit defensive vulnerabilities. Knowing when to deploy this deceptive play can be the difference between a routine completion and a game-changing touchdown. Let’s explore the strategic timing behind calling a play-action pass.

Establishing the Run Game

The effectiveness of a play-action pass is intricately tied to the success of a team’s running game. Coaches often opt for play-action when they believe they have convincingly established dominance on the ground. A formidable running attack forces the defense to commit resources to halt the run, creating the ideal conditions for a play-action pass to catch them off guard.

Teams with a powerful running back, like Derrick Henry for the Tennessee Titans, exemplify how a strong ground game sets the stage for captivating play-action plays. The threat of a dynamic runner draws defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, creating opportunities for the quarterback to exploit downfield.

Exploiting Defensive Expectations

Timing is everything in football, and calling a play-action pass becomes especially potent when the defense is expecting a run. Successful play-action plays often stem from situations where the defense has overcommitted to stopping the run. If a team has effectively run the ball during a game, the defense becomes more inclined to anticipate and react aggressively to potential run plays.

Peyton Manning, a master of exploiting defensive expectations, often utilized play action in critical situations. By forcing linebackers to step up, even just for a moment, Manning created openings for multiple receivers down the field. This split-second hesitation from defenders can lead to significant gains through the air.

Situational Effectiveness

Short Yardage Situations:

Play-action passes are particularly effective in short-yardage situations. When facing a 3rd-and-short or a similar scenario, defenses often anticipate a run play. The element of surprise introduced by a play-action pass in these situations can catch defenders off guard, leading to quick completions or even long gains.

Red Zone and Goal-Line Plays:

In the condensed space of the red zone or near the goal line, defenses tend to tighten up in anticipation of a run. Coordinators strategically deploy play action in these areas, leveraging the defense’s commitment to run-stopping. This strategic use can result in well-timed passes that exploit the compacted defense and lead to crucial touchdowns.

Understanding the ebb and flow of the game, recognizing the defensive mindset, and capitalizing on the established run game are the hallmarks of effective play-action calling. Coaches who strategically time these plays create opportunities for explosive offensive plays, showcasing the nuanced dance between deception and execution in the realm of football strategy.

Common Play Action Pass Concepts

In the intricate playbook of football, play-action pass concepts serve as the artistic strokes that add flair and unpredictability to an offensive strategy. These well-designed plays, each with its unique characteristics, contribute to the deceptive symphony that is the play-action pass. Let’s delve into two common play-action pass concepts: the Double Post and the Bubble Y Over.

Double Post

Concept Overview: The Double Post play-action pass is akin to a calculated gamble, designed to exploit defensive vulnerabilities and create opportunities for explosive downfield passes. The concept revolves around having two wide receivers positioned on the quarterback’s front side, both running identical post routes towards the deep field.

Execution and Purpose: As the play unfolds, the quarterback executes a convincing play-action fake, drawing defenders towards the line with the illusion of a run. Simultaneously, the two receivers sprint downfield, attacking the deep field with their post routes. The gamble lies in the hope that at least one of the receivers can beat their defender, creating a favorable matchup deep down the field.

This concept capitalizes on the defense’s potential over commitment to the perceived run, leaving the secondary vulnerable to well-placed passes. If successful, the Double Post play-action pass can result in significant gains or even a touchdown, making it a high-risk, high-reward addition to a team’s playbook.

Bubble Y Over

  1. Setup and Mechanics: The Bubble Y Over is a play-action pass concept often employed in spread offenses, offering a minimum of four passing options for the quarterback. The setup involves the running back taking the snap at an angle, simulating an outside run. As the fake unfolds, the running back continues towards the sideline on a swing route. On the opposite side, the slot receiver runs the bubble—a short route towards the opposite sideline. Simultaneously, the remaining three receivers execute deeper routes down the field. This diverse set of routes aims to exploit the voids left by defenders who have committed to defending the perceived run.
  2. Creating Opportunities Downfield: The quarterback’s decision-making becomes crucial in the Bubble Y Over concept. If the defense reacts aggressively to the short routes, it opens up opportunities for the deeper routes to exploit the vacated spaces. The backside receiver often runs a go route, while the opposite side receiver executes a post route towards the middle, attacking the safety. This play-action pass concept aims to stretch the defense horizontally and vertically, creating mismatches and exploiting the indecision caused by the run fake. When executed effectively, the Bubble Y Over can result in well-timed passes and significant gains downfield.

Understanding these common play-action pass concepts provides teams with versatile tools to keep defenses guessing. Coaches strategically integrate these plays into their offensive schemes, considering the strengths of their personnel and the tendencies of opposing defenses. As we explore the artistry behind these concepts, we uncover the calculated risk and strategic brilliance that define the play-action pass in modern football strategy.

Peyton Manning’s Play Action Mastery

In the annals of football history, Peyton Manning stands out not only as one of the greatest quarterbacks but also as a master tactician in the art of play-action passing. Manning’s ability to manipulate defenses with precision and exploit the smallest nuances of the game made him a maestro of deception. Let’s dissect the elements that defined Peyton Manning’s play-action mastery.

Game of Inches and Defensive Manipulation

The Art of the Mesh Point:

Manning’s play-action success hinged on his meticulous execution of the mesh point—a critical moment where he simulated a handoff to the running back. Manning’s keen attention to detail, seen in his eyes fixated on the ball-carrier and his shoulder-sinking technique, added layers to the deception. The intricacies of the mesh point made it challenging for defenders to discern whether a run or pass play was unfolding.

Inducing Defensive Conflict:

The key to Manning’s play-action brilliance was his ability to induce conflict among defenders at the second and third levels. By making the ball-carrier look as if he’s receiving the ball, Manning created uncertainty for linebackers and defensive backs reading their keys. This split-second hesitation played into Manning’s hands, allowing his receivers to exploit openings in the defense.

Quick Transition to Pass Reads:

Manning’s proficiency extended beyond the fake handoff. Immediately after the fake, he smoothly transitioned to identifying his first pass read. This rapid decision-making, coupled with a tall stance in the pocket, allowed him to survey the field and capitalize on the defensive confusion generated by the play action.

Exploiting Linebacker Reactions

Forcing Linebackers to Step Up:

Manning’s play-action prowess was particularly evident in his knack for forcing linebackers to step up, even if just for a fraction of a second. This seemingly minor adjustment from linebackers played a crucial role in opening up passing lanes behind them. Manning exploited this momentary hesitation to deliver accurate throws to receivers who had found separation.

Creating Mismatches Downfield:

Manning’s strategic manipulation of linebackers created favorable matchups downfield. As linebackers committed to the perceived run, receivers running deeper routes found themselves in advantageous positions. Manning’s ability to read the defense and exploit these mismatches showcased the strategic brilliance that defined his play-action success.

Effectiveness in Short Yardage Situations

Strategic Deployment in Critical Moments:

Manning’s understanding of situational football led to the strategic deployment of play-action passes in short yardage situations. In scenarios like 3rd-and-short, where defenses anticipate a run, Manning leveraged play action to catch defenders off guard. The success of these plays often resulted from the defense’s commitment to stopping the run, creating opportunities for quick, well-timed passes.

Red Zone Brilliance:

Near the goal line, where defensive intensity peaks, Manning’s play-action effectiveness shone brightly. The compressed space made defenders more susceptible to the deception, and Manning capitalized on this by delivering precise passes to exploit defensive overcommitment. The result was often crucial touchdowns in pivotal moments.

Peyton Manning’s play-action mastery was a testament to his football IQ, attention to detail, and strategic acumen. His ability to turn a simple fake handoff into a game-changing play highlighted the nuanced brilliance that sets apart the true maestros of the quarterback position. As we reflect on Manning’s legacy, his play-action prowess stands as a lesson in the fine art of manipulating defenses in the game of inches.

Play Action Pass vs. Run Pass Option (RPO)

In the dynamic landscape of football strategy, the play-action pass and the run-pass option (RPO) represent distinct approaches, each with its nuances and tactical considerations. Let’s delve into the fundamental differences, the role distinctions within the offensive line, and the quarterback decision-making intricacies that define these two play types.

Fundamental Differences

Play Action Pass:

Essence: The play-action pass is a designed passing play that mimics a run. It involves a fake handoff, where the quarterback executes a convincing motion as if handing the ball to a running back.

Nature: Play action is always intended to be a pass play. It relies on deceiving the defense by making them believe a run is imminent, creating opportunities for downfield passes.

Run Pass Option (RPO):

Essence: The RPO, on the other hand, integrates both run and pass options into a single play. The quarterback makes a post-snap decision based on the defensive alignment, choosing either to hand the ball off for a run or execute a quick pass.

Dynamic Decision-Making: Unlike play action, an RPO is not pre-determined as a pass. It adapts to the defense’s reaction, allowing the quarterback to read the defense and make a split-second decision.

Offensive Line’s Role Distinction

Play Action Pass:

Block Transition: In a play-action pass, the offensive line transitions from run blocking to pass protection. The linemen initiate their blocks as if executing a run play but quickly adjust to protect the quarterback as he drops back for the pass.

No Downfield Movement: The offensive line’s focus is on protecting the quarterback rather than progressing downfield, as play-action passes are designed for the quarterback to remain in the pocket.

Run Pass Option (RPO):

Dual Responsibility: In an RPO, the offensive line must be prepared for both run and pass scenarios. They initiate run-blocking techniques but remain mindful of potential pass plays, requiring quick reactions based on the quarterback’s decision.

Downfield Movement Possible: Depending on the quarterback’s decision, the offensive line may engage in downfield blocking for a run or maintain pass protection for a quick throw.

Quarterback Decision-Making in Each Play Type

Play Action Pass:

Pre-Determined Pass: The quarterback’s decision in a play-action pass is pre-determined—it’s always a pass play. The quarterback executes the fake handoff and proceeds to look for open receivers downfield.

Exploiting Deception: Success in play-action passes lies in the quarterback’s ability to exploit the defensive reaction to the run fake. Quick and accurate decision-making is crucial in capitalizing on the created openings.

Run Pass Option (RPO):

Read and React: The quarterback’s role in an RPO involves reading the defense post-snap and reacting accordingly. If the defense commits to stopping the run, the quarterback may opt for a quick pass; otherwise, the handoff to the running back is executed.

Adaptability: Quarterbacks in RPOs showcase adaptability, reading the defense’s movements and making split-second choices based on the evolving scenario.

Understanding the fundamental distinctions, the offensive line’s role nuances, and the quarterback’s decision-making dynamics between play-action passes and RPOs provides teams with a diverse set of tools for offensive strategy. Coaches strategically integrate these plays into their game plans, considering the strengths of their personnel and the tendencies of opposing defenses, showcasing the strategic richness embedded in football’s ever-evolving playbook.

Key Techniques in Executing a Play Action Fake

Mastering the art of play-action passing involves a set of nuanced techniques that elevate the deception and effectiveness of the fake. Quarterbacks, the orchestrators of this strategic dance, employ key techniques to sell the illusion of a run play and open up passing opportunities. Let’s explore these essential elements in executing a play-action fake.

The Mesh Point

The mesh point is a pivotal moment in the play-action fake where the quarterback simulates a handoff to the running back. It’s a delicate exchange designed to convince the defense that a run play is unfolding. Importance lies in the quarterback’s ability to execute a convincing mesh point, creating uncertainty among defenders regarding the true nature of the play.

Manning’s Expertise:

Peyton Manning, renowned for his play-action mastery, excelled in perfecting the mesh point. His attention to detail, timing, and body language created a seamless transition that kept defenders guessing.

Sinking the Shoulders

Purpose and Execution:

Sinking the shoulders is a subtle yet crucial element of the play-action fake. The quarterback, after initiating the mesh point, lowers his shoulders, adding a layer of realism to the fake by mimicking the posture associated with a genuine handoff.

Executing this technique induces conflict, creating hesitation and vulnerability in the defense by disrupting reads of linebackers and defensive backs.

Tom Brady’s Example:

Tom Brady, known for his precise execution, exemplifies the art of sinking the shoulders during play-action. His knack for subtly moving his shoulders played a crucial role in the success of play-action passes in his skill set.

Eyes Downfield After the Fake

Transitioning to Passing Read:

Immediately after the fake, the quarterback’s eyes play a crucial role in the success of the play-action. The rapid transition from the mesh point to scanning downfield allows the quarterback to identify open receivers and exploit the voids created by the deceived defense.

Quick Decision-Making:

    • Peyton Manning’s quick transition of gaze after the fake was a hallmark of his play-action brilliance. The ability to make split-second decisions based on the defense’s reaction showcased the quarterback’s mastery in exploiting the deceptive nature of the play-action.

Standing Tall in the Pocket

Balancing Act:

Once the fake is executed, the quarterback must stand tall in the pocket to maintain visibility over the defense. This ensures an unobstructed view of the field, enabling the quarterback to go through progressions and make accurate throws.

Tom Brady’s Pocket Presence:

Tom Brady’s poise in the pocket following a play-action fake is a testament to the importance of standing tall. His ability to remain composed allowed him to capitalize on the defensive confusion and deliver precise passes.

Mastering these key techniques transforms the play-action fake from a routine motion into a strategic masterpiece. Quarterbacks who excel in these subtle yet impactful details become conductors of a deceptive symphony that keeps defenses on their toes. Dissecting the mesh point, shoulder sinking, eye movement, and pocket presence unveils the artistry defining the play-action pass in skilled quarterbacks’ hands.

Play Action Pass in Different Offensive Formations

The versatility of the play-action pass extends beyond its strategic execution to the varied offensive formations employed by teams. Whether operating under center or from the shotgun, teams leverage the play-action fake to keep defenses guessing and create opportunities downfield. Let’s explore how the play-action pass manifests in different offensive formations, citing examples of successful plays.

Under Center vs. Shotgun

Under Center:

Execution: In traditional under-center formations, the quarterback takes the snap directly from the center. Play-action under center involves a convincing fake handoff to a running back, utilizing the mesh point to deceive the defense.

Advantages: The under-center play-action allows for a more authentic simulation of a run play, as the quarterback is in close proximity to the running back. This can draw defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, creating favorable passing lanes.


Execution: Operating from the shotgun, the quarterback receives the snap several yards behind the center. Shotgun play-action involves a fake handoff with the aim of causing defensive confusion and opening up passing opportunities.

Advantages: The shotgun formation provides the quarterback with better visibility of the entire field, enhancing the ability to read defenses. Additionally, the increased distance from the line of scrimmage may create additional time for the passing play to develop.

Examples of Successful Play Action Plays

Tennessee Titans’ Tandem:

Formation: Under center.

Execution: Derrick Henry, a powerhouse running back, attracts significant defensive attention. Titans leverage under-center play-action, drawing defenders in as Tannehill executes convincing fakes, scanning downfield for strategic opportunities.

Result: Successful completions to receivers like AJ Brown, who find openings in the defense due to the effective play-action.

Los Angeles Rams’ Shotgun Brilliance:

Formation: Shotgun.

Execution: With Jared Goff in the shotgun, the Rams employ play-action to enhance the effectiveness of their passing game. The distance from the line of scrimmage and Goff’s quick decision-making create a dynamic play-action threat.

Result: Successful deep passes to receivers like Cooper Kupp, who benefit from the defensive confusion generated by the deceptive play-action maneuvers.

New England Patriots’ Tactical Under Center Approach:

Formation: Under center.

Execution: Tom Brady, known for his mastery of play-action, executes deceptive fakes under center. The Patriots strategically blend their run and pass plays, with Brady’s skilled play-action creating uncertainty in the minds of defenders.

Result: Successful completions to a variety of receivers, showcasing the effectiveness of play-action in the Patriots’ offensive scheme.

The success of play-action plays in different formations underscores its adaptability as a strategic tool. Whether in the traditional under-center approach or the shotgun’s modern dynamics, play action remains a potent weapon in the hands of quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. These examples highlight how teams leverage the inherent advantages of each formation to keep defenses off balance and exploit the deceptive nature of the play-action pass.


In the realm of football strategy, the play-action pass emerges as a masterful blend of deception and execution. From mesh point intricacies to eyes transitioning downfield, quarterbacks orchestrate a symphony of feints, selling the illusion of a run play. Strategic finesse, coupled with well-timed play-action deployment in diverse situations, transforms it into a potent game changer in football tactics.

Play-action’s brilliance shines in concepts like double post, Bubble Y Over, revealing coaches’ ingenuity to exploit defensive vulnerabilities. Manning’s mastery adds precision, exploiting linebacker reactions and excelling in short-yardage scenarios to elevate play action into an art form.

Comparing RPO, exploring adaptability in formations—under center versus shotgun—the play-action cements its timeless status in football’s dynamic tapestry. A strategic cornerstone, it keeps defenses off balance, creates explosive plays, injecting excitement with each carefully executed fake. In football’s ever-evolving tactics, the play-action pass stands tall, a strategic masterpiece poised to unfold with every snap of the ball.

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