It has been football gospel for many decades that play action passing works if you first make your opponent afraid of your ability to run the ball. I seem to recall Football Outsiders providing good evidence that this is not the case at some point in the past, but guest columnist Ben Baldwin recently made a great case against the idea.
I urge you to read all of the gory mathematical details, but no matter how you slice it, the numbers bear out one over-arching point: the running game has no effect at all on your ability to use play action. Across the league, teams generally excel when they use play action, and they generally don’t use it enough.
But man, the Green Bay Packers? The Packers are straight up weird. I went into this piece expecting just to tell you about how the lack of correlation between running and play action impacts the Packers. Instead I noticed the shocking fact that the Green Bay Packers are one of the worst play action teams in football, and have been for at least three seasons. They are, in fact, almost certainly the worst play action team over that time period overall. This is a big deal because many teams derive huge benefits from play action, including the Rams, Jaguars, and Patriots. As Ben mentions in the article, the Eagles cranked up play action in the playoffs under Foles, to great effect.
So what is going on with the Packers?
I’m relying on Football Outsiders charting data, which is part of their premium subscription, but it is available if you want to see for yourself.
It tells you the frequency of play action passing, the average yards per pass on play action, the average yards per play on non-play action plays, and the difference between the two.
Last season, only the Raiders, with an amazingly terrible 4.4 yards per play action pass, were worse than the Packers at 5.8. The obvious culprit would be Brett Hundley, except for the fact that 2016 and 2015 paint a similar picture. The 2016 season was slightly better, as the Pack averaged 6.4 yards per play action pass, but that still ranked just 28th in the league. That was better than only Houston, Cleveland, Carolina, and Baltimore. 2015 was the year Jordy Nelson tore his ACL, and as a result the offense overall wasn’t up to snuff. Still, it once again struggled on play action passes, ranking dead last in the league with 5.2 yards per pass.
Overall, the Packers were one of only two teams to fair worse on play action passes than regular passes in every season since 2015, with only Cam Newton’s Panthers matching them.
What on Earth is Happening Here?
In Ben’s piece, he focused on the immediate impact of running within the game as it correlated to play action passing in the game. Establishing the run does not cause defenders to react to play action — that’s pretty clear from the data — but I suspect at a higher level, the run game may be implicated, at least partially, in play-action passing.
1. If GB Runs, Aaron isn’t Throwing
I think the most likely explanation here is that defenses come into a game against Green Bay almost entirely unconcerned about stopping the run, and to some extent, daring the Packers to run. While a linebacker may not necessarily stay disciplined in coverage on play action after a failed run, he may stay back in coverage if his defensive coordinator tells him to stay back in coverage no matter what, or at least until he’s 100% sure it isn’t a passing play. Biting on play action is bad, but it’s especially bad against a good quarterback, and it’s easy to envision part of the game plan focusing on ignoring play action, regardless of the situation.
Indeed, it is not uncommon to find the league’s elite quarterbacks as those not benefiting as much from play action. The Saints are frequently among the worst in terms of differential between PA and non-PA passes, as is Ben Roethlisberger, and occasionally, Russell Wilson, though his seasons vary greatly. This theory is at least plausible.
2. Tight Ends
When you run play action, the goal is to have defenders charge the line of scrimmage in run support, opening up space behind them. This is especially true in the middle of the field where inside linebackers and safeties are crucial to run support, and exploitable in play action. Because of this, one of the biggest beneficiaries of play action should be your tight ends. However, the Packers have had mostly awful tight ends since Jermichael Finley was forced to retire. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the addition of Jared Cook aided with the slight uptick in Packer success in 2016.
3. Vertical Wide Receivers
Aaron Rodgers has essentially been a glorified checkdown artist since 2014, and if not for his amazing play in goal-to-go situations and the resulting touchdowns, everyone would be far more concerned about the Packer offense. The fact is that the current Packer roster is almost entirely incapable of creating big gains through the air, and play action passing often creates big plays through the air.
This should also serve as a warning to the Packer front office on the state of the wide receivers. Play action is a weapon for almost every other team, and their inability to exploit PA down the field is a huge liability when you have Aaron Rodgers.
4. Statistical Noise
It’s possible this is just all noise. The Packers also run play action less than almost any other team, and even a small slump would destroy their numbers.
The lack of play action success, in my opinion, is the result of a deep league-wide respect for Rodgers combined with a severe lack of skill position talent. The best teams on PA run the gamut from “average” to great QBs, but they all have good wideouts or tight ends. The Vikings may be the best example. Bradford in 2016 and Keenum this year are fine players, though hardly stars; however, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are both great receivers and the Vikings excelled in play action over the past two seasons, ranking fourth and sixth respectively in play action yards per play.
The Packers may never be great using play action while Aaron is playing at an otherworldly level, but they certainly shouldn’t be among the worst in the league, and the fact that they are is a huge red flag on the state of their offense generally.