What Is Play Action In Football? Explained

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

Announcers and analysts often use the term play action to describe what’s happening on offense. What does action pass mean in football?

Play action is a play in football where the quarterback fakes the ball to the running back and then throws a pass. The fake to the running back makes the defense think it’s a run play so the quarterback can throw the ball to an open receiver behind them.

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

But first, if you want to understand play action, you need to learn about running plays and pass plays.

Running Play

A running play in football is when the quarterback takes the snap from the center, and hands it off to a running back.

Running plays are effective because it forces the defense to commit their linebackers and defensive linemen to the football.

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 running plays will often tip their cap on what each play will be.

Play action passing play with run fake

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 the play action pass is most effective.

This is how teams will set up play action. If they have a good running game, then the defense must commit their resources to the run.

Passing Play

Play action passing play

The second element to moving the football downfield in football is the passing play. For teams that throw the football downfield, running an efficient passing route can force linebackers and defensive backs into coverage.

It’s important for coaches to have a solid passing and running game in order to use play action effectively.

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Why Teams 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, and 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 pass 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 play 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.

A good play action fake starts with the quarterback putting the ball out as if he’s going to hand it off. Both the running back and the quarterback need to sell like it is a run after the ball is snapped. The running back will fake run to the hole and then pass protect.

There are two ways to run play action passes, from under center and from the spread.

Play Action Pass From Under Center

Play action passes 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, and he will pull it back into his 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.

If the offense has an effective run game, they should be able to hit a big play to a passing option that is open downfield. This is why the wide receiver needs to run as fast as they can off the football so the defense is never sure if it’s a run or pass.

Play Action Pass 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 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 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, and 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

It’s important to note that the play action pass and run pass option (RPO) are different. We wrote about the differences here.

A good play action pass requires both the quarterback and running back to sell the run. This will help to bring the linebackers up and the offensive can throw a crossing route behind them.

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.

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.