Skip to Content

What Is Play Action In Football?

Announcers and analysts often use the term play-action as they’re describing what’s happening on offense. What does the term play-action mean in football?

Playing in football means the quarterback fakes the ball to the running back and then throws a pass. The fake to the running back trick the defense into thinking it’s a run so that the quarterback can throw the ball to an open receiver.

In this article, we will show you the different types of play-action and why teams use them.

Play Action In Football

Teams will utilize play-action to keep the defense honest. Play action can come in many forms, all depending on the coach’s scheme.

All offenses have play-action, which allows the offense to stay one step ahead of the defense.

Defenses must be ready to stop the run and the pass. Good coaches will typically have a 60/40 split of the run-to-pass ratio. Teams that have more passes than runs will often tip their cap on what each play will be.

For instance, if the team is 80/20 pass to run, the defense will drop their linebackers and defensive backs into pass coverage almost every play. The defensive lineman can be aggressive in committing to the pass, and the defense doesn’t have to think as much.

Teams that are 60/40 run to pass or even a 50/50 split makes the defense think and treat every down as a new down. This is where play-action is most effective.

Why Run Play Action In Football?

When the team is 60/40 or 50/50 in their play calls, linebackers and defensive backs must react rather than anticipate mode. This means that a play-action pass can make all of the defensive players commit to the run, which the offense can throw the ball to open receivers.

In the example above, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay is one of the top coaches in running the zone scheme and play-action passes.

A good play-action team will make the runs and the passes look identical. This is to trick the linebackers and defensive backs into thinking it’s a run so that they can get players into open space.

If a team is successful on a play-action pass, it slows down the speed at which the linebackers play, making running the football much more effective.

Play Action From Under Center

Play action can be run two different ways, from under-center and the shotgun. Running play-action under center can be more convincing for the offense, as everything will look the same for the quarterback.

The quarterback can do the same action as if he’s handing the football off. The only difference is right before the ball is handed off, he will pull it back into his own stomach and prepare himself to throw the football.

Coaches may also have the quarterback put his hand into the running back’s belly with no ball in his hand. Often, the defense will fall for the fake because they won’t see the football.

Play Action From The Spread

Play action from shotgun works similarly to play-action as it does under center. The only difference is that players will now see exactly what they need to read downfield.

The quarterback will put the ball into the stomach of the running back with 2 hands. He will then slowly remove it from the running back’s stomach and throw the ball down the field. The play-action from a shotgun has led to the invention of the RPO, which we cover here.

Play action from a shotgun has made it easier for quarterbacks to read the coverage, as they can keep their eyes downfield the entire time while faking it to the running back.

Naked Bootleg Play Action

The last type of play-action is the naked bootleg play-action. It’s called naked play-action because the quarterback will run the opposite way after the play fake to the running back is complete.

There is often no protection for the quarterback once he fakes to the running back, where the term naked comes from. Quarterbacks are completely left exposed after the play fake, which they must deliver the ball quickly after faking.

Teams will often have quarterbacks who have a bit more speed do naked bootlegs than slower quarterbacks.

The reason is if the defense isn’t fooled, there’s a good chance the quarterback may have to run away from the defensive lineman or blitzing linebackers. Slower quarterbacks may not be able to run away from them.

Keep Learning

Play action, otherwise known as a play fake, is when the quarterback fakes the handoff to the running back to fake out the defense. Play fakes are used to confuse the linebackers and the defensive backs into thinking it’s a run when really it’s a pass.

These plays help the offense gain an extra step on the defense to get wide receivers open down the field. This tactic has been used for 50+ years in football and will continue to be used.

It’s one of the most effective offensive techniques to keep a defense honest and less aggressive.

Football is a game of tendencies and ratios; breaking the mold and tricking the defense is one way to slow them down.