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March 2008

March 2008

4 Principles of Play Action Passing

by: Michael Parker
© March 2008

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Gary Crowton has seen it all. He has coached in the biggest stadiums, in the biggest conferences, in the biggest games. He has coached in the small stadiums of small conferences in overlooked games. But, one thing doesn’t change no matter where he coaches. It is all football.


Crowton joined Les Miles’ staff at LSU this year as offensive coordinator and helped lead the Tigers to a National Championship using two quarterbacks and a handful of ball carriers. Crowton has been partial to the Spread offense for many years, and has become a master of meshing play action passing into the framework of a system that most teams equate with the option and short passing game.

Those two aspects are nice to have but they aren’t enough to make an offense. Play action is a major component to an effective system. “When I first started using the spread years ago, I didn’t have as good a run game because we didn’t use the zone read,” says Crowton. “When you run the zone read from the shotgun you have a better run threat.

“It used to be that the biggest run threat you had were your screens. When you had the screens going well, you were able to keep the defense honest and you would make some big plays out of it. But then defenses started having linemen retrace their steps and when they did that, the screens weren’t always as good. There are a lot of defenses with zone blitzes where they would drop their linemen and in dropping linemen they had the ability to disrupt the screen. The linemen weren’t really accounted for in the blocking scheme so you had to make new rules and it made it harder to get the big play.”

Thus the need for another way to keep a defense honest: Play Action.


There are four keys that Crowton feels are crucial in ensuring that play action can be an effective component of his offensive game plan.

1. Use Play Action Passes to supplement your most used runs.

One of the most common run plays that has become a staple of nearly everyone who employs the Spread is the zone read. Crowton is no different. But he has also used other runs as well.

“Before I used the zone read, I used the Tackle Trap,” says Crowton. “We called it TOM (Tackle on the Mike). On TOM you pulled a lineman and you had the option with the QB and that gave us some run advantages. So now, with that threat, the defense has to bring extra guys in the box on shotgun.”

Perfect for play-action. But, it is only a plausible threat if the defense is trying hard to stop the run play that the play action simulates.

2. Make each player’s responsibility as similar as possible to the run play you are faking, including the blocking scheme.

It goes without saying that you want to create the illusion that you are going to run a running play before a fake and a throw downfield. The play needs to look the same.

Crowton admits that this is hardest for those big guys up front. You want them to simulate their normal run blockings track without getting them downfield, and without getting them out of position to effectively protect the passer.

If you are using the zone read, for example, you can’t really pull a lineman for pass protection without setting off an alarm to the defense that this play is different. You can use a myriad of protections – slide, gap, whatever – but it is important that the defense’s keys aren’t so clear that they drop back into coverage before the backfield even makes their fake.

“What we did is make the linemen keys in play action protection as similar to the zone read keys as possible,” says Crowton. “It freezes the defense even more and it gives the QB more time to throw the ball. The key is you really want to get hats down and make it look like a run. But, you have to make sure that your formation or tendencies doesn’t become so obvious that they will know what protection you will try to use and they can attack that certain protection. With slide protection, teams can blitz behind the slide, so you have to be careful of the defense knowing what you are going to be do.”

3. Determine how the opposing defense will stop the corresponding run play and isolate and freeze the players who have run responsibility as well as a pass coverage responsibility.

In your game planning, you will be trying to get a bead on just how the other team will try to stop your bread and butter runs. There are only a few different ways that most teams will try to stop a play like the zone read.

“If you are going to run the zone read, there are two backers who will be involved against most defenses, the playside backer and the keepside backer,” says Crowton. “The playside backer is the backer where the back is going to end up after he gets the ball and the backside backer is the backer who will be reading the keep portion of the zone read play where the QB will be going.

“If either backer is not involved in the pass game – only the run game – then the defense is in man-to-man or they are going to use a safety to cover your inside receivers. And if they have a safety down, what you want to do is run the play pass at that safety. That is, where you can get your big plays. You used to be able to do that out of the I by faking the ball to the back and the safety would come down and then you would have your receiver one-on-one with their corner. Now you are doing the same thing from the shotgun with the zone read.

“So you want to determine who on defense is doing what. Who has dual responsibilities (for both run and pass)? Once you have an idea of what the defense is going to do to you, take advantage of the players who have to play both run and pass, or who might be out of position to cover a receiver downfield.

“The best thing you can do to get a play action pass off of the zone read is to determine which backers you are trying to freeze,” says Crowton. “When you are using play action, those two backers (playside and keepside) are the two guys that you have to affect.”

4. Attack the area those defenders can’t effectively defend with the pass routes of the play.

“This is how I look at it,” says Crowton. “It is mostly inside receivers if you are working on backers. If I send the inside receivers vertical, do the inside backers try to carry the inside receivers? If the inside backers try and carry the inside receivers, then you want to run the zone read. You want to run your play action pass right behind it, because if they are coming up to make the play too fast they can’t get back and reroute their inside receivers. You need to adjust the routes to get behind those two players.”

“If you go four verticals, and they are in a quarters look, or Cover 2 look, you can fake the run right at the playside backer and you run the receiver on his side of the field right behind where he is. And you have a real good play action pass.

“So what we do is attack that backer who would carry the inside receivers. If they don’t assign a backer to carry those receivers, then they are bringing the safeties down. Or they are playing quarter safeties, where those quarter safeties are playing virtually man to man over the top of number two.

“If that is the case, then what you want to do is go behind those safeties. For example, in the game this season against Virginia Tech, we faked a QB zone to the tight end side. We were in a 3 x 1 with a TE to the right and three receivers to the left. The safety over the top had #3 vertical. He is also trying to help with the run. That backer to the three receiver side is going to carry the inside receiver a little bit so that the safety doesn’t have to come down right away.

“So what we did is fake the run to the right. That backer who was carrying the receiver to the left was watching the QB faking to the right and didn’t drop to his zone. Then the safety over the top who was supposed to have number three going vertical froze and stepped up for the run. Early Doucet went right behind both of them. Nobody was within 10 yards of him and he went in for a touchdown.”

Sounds simple enough.

Odd Fronts and Creative Pressure Schemes

“Now, some of these odd stack fronts are really disruptive in protection,” says Crowton. “But if you max up, you can isolate some one on ones.” But, for any team or coach looking for a way to get an edge with their Spread this fall, play action might be the aspect to focus on.

“Make sure that you are taking advantage of a defense that’s anxious to stop your best run. Make sure that your players are doing the same things on both the run and pass play so that the defense can’t tell the difference before it is too late. And, you know, so the kids on your side are less likely to mess it up. Make sure you have a good idea of how the defense will try to stop the play, and make sure you take advantage of those defenders in compromising situations. And you will have a good play action plan.

“Play action passes give you big plays,” says Crowton. “And if teams are going to blitz you – especially with zone blitzes – then you can find the holes with a play action pass or a quick throw. Whatever it can be to attack those areas, it lends you the opportunity to move the ball quicker without spending the time to get 12, 13, 14 play drives. Now you can get four, five, or six play drives and score.

“Against Alabama we hit a big play action pass and it turned the game around. Big play-action passes can change momentum and turn things quickly.”


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