According to Football Outsiders DVOA metric, the Green Bay Packers currently enjoy the league’s third best defense, which is great. They also boast the third best passing defense, which is also great. However when it comes to run defense they rank only 22nd, which is not great on the surface.
Under the surface, there is something interesting going on. Matt LaFleur’s offense depends heavily on play-action passing, and the Packer offense has unquestionably improved in this regard. Whereas last season they were one of the worst teams when running play-action and one of the only teams to fair better when not using it, this season they are 3.4 yards per play better when running play-action. That’s the 9th best differential in the league, and the Packers are running play-action the 10th-most of any team in the league. There are teams that get more bang for their buck like the Chiefs, who average 13.8 yards per play when using play-action, (compared to the Packers’ paltry 8.8), but the Packers at least enjoy a nice split, and benefit from PA.
It stands to reason that if play-action passing is such an effective tool on offense, that stopping it on defense would be equally effective, and here we see how Matt LaFleur’s offensive tendencies may rub off a bit on Mike Pettine. In this young season, only the 49ers and Patriots have defended play-action as well as the Packers, who have held opponents to 4.9 yards per play-action pass. Stopping play-action isn’t easy. Every study conducted shows that running ability has almost no effect on the success of play-action. The defense’s reaction to the handoff fake is almost entirely an in-the-moment reaction, and not some conscious decision, and as a result it’s difficult to coach against. That said, the current Packer defense is well set up to stop it.
The Packers have been good against the run as recently as 2017, with Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels anchoring the middle while Blake Martinez cleaned up the mess behind them. They’ve been rougher this year, and part of that has been increased focus on the pass rush, with more disciplined play against play-action. Just look at how Za’Darius Smith handles this play fake from Joe Flacco.
He momentarily adjusts to the back but keeps his wits about him and angles back to Flacco as soon as he realizes where the ball is. He does react, but not much. Downfield, the inside linebackers also bite, just a little, but they don’t come crashing down hill. They wait and see.
That waiting occasionally can cost them on real actual runs, but it makes passing that much harder. On an awful fake by Kirk Cousins (more on this later) no one is fooled in any significant way. The linebackers float up, but just a bit, and because the receivers are well-covered by Jaire Alexander and Kevin King, there really isn’t an exploitable hole created by play-action. The running backs also go out into the pattern and run directly into coverage, which was waiting back for them.
And finally, on this play, Phillip Lindsay takes the fake and rolls out but the Green Bay defense stays true. They don’t crash down, they simply keep him in front, and stay back in pass pro. There is always some movement on the fake, but the Packers have shown good discipline so far, and the pass rush seems mostly undeterred by play-action.
The Vikings are interesting because they have run play-action more than any other team (38% of the time), but on a per-play basis they are better on conventional plays (7.8 yards per attempt) than PA plays (7.1 Y/A). There is certainly a potential chicken-and-egg problem here, with the Packers having faced them in a third of their games. Cousins does not appear to be particularly adept at using play-action, though the Vikings were successful last season. It’s also possible that certain teams will see diminishing returns if they overuse it.
But it’s probably the Packer defense. The Bears are also upside-down, with their normal offense resulting in better results than their play-action, and given that the Vikings and Bears share this in common, the Packers are likely the cause. If the Packers do get run on a little bit, that may not be the end of the world. It’s entirely possible that they have merely adjusted to the current big trend, and have found that the tradeoff is worth it if they can shut down the opposing play-action attack.
*This article was put together using premium charting data from FootballOutsiders.com.