There is an easy way to use analytics as an NFL offense: call more play action. On these plays, the offense fakes a run, gets the defense to commit towards the line of scrimmage, and then throws the ball.
Play action is more efficient than other pass plays. More on that later.
But my favorite aspect of play action comes from analysis by Josh Hermsmeyer. In a 2018 study on FiveThirtyEight, he found that it didn’t matter how often an offense called play action.
Using NFL player tracking data, Hermsmeyer quantified the wasted motion of the middle linebacker. The amount of wasted motion was constant whether the offense had called its first or twelfth play action.
It is amazing that NFL defenses care so much to stop the run.
In an episode of the Preview Series on The Football Analytics Show podcast, I talked about how Buffalo OC Brian Daboll has used play action. According to Pro Football Reference, Daboll called play action on 21.3% of pass plays in 2019, 18th most in the NFL. This increased to 30.4% in 2020 (4th) as the offense exploded under QB Josh Allen.
Because of Allen, Daboll and a talented defense, Buffalo is a primary Super Bowl contender.
However, data does suggest that play action might be losing its edge. Pro Football Reference has published play action data for each team the past two seasons and gave the following NFL average:
- 2019: 8.07 yards per attempt
- 2020: 7.75 yards per attempt
In 2019, an NFL offense gained 1.09 more yards per attempt on play action than other pass plays. This dropped to 0.65 in 2020.
This drop most likely comes from noise.
But if there is some signal in these results, it suggests that defenses are adapting and not caring so much about stopping the run. Of course, it is crazy to think all defenses will evolve at once. That’s as crazy as thinking you can get a dopamine addicted Twitter troll to read Infinite Jest.
Let’s speculate about one team that takes a modern approach and doesn’t get fooled by play action: Kansas City. The reason is simple: they don’t care to stop the run at all.
Over the last 3 seasons, Andy Reid’s defense has finished dead last in my adjusted rush success rate. Dead last. If the Chiefs don’t care to stop the run, then they most likely won’t get fooled by play action.
Kansas City isn’t an excellent pass defense, but they did rank 11th in my adjusted pass success rate in 2020. In addition, they have Patrick Mahomes on the other side of the ball.
When I’m watching Kansas City host Cleveland on Sunday, I’ll be watching how their linebackers react to run plays. If they wait until the running back has the ball before approaching the line of scrimmage, it gives this Super Bowl contender one more edge.
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