What Does Play Action Mean In Football?

A play-action is a deceptive play that can be used to throw off the defense and implemented by many of the top offenses in football. It’s designed to look like a running play, but instead, a pass is thrown, often long.

The deception comes from faking as if there would be a run up the middle or off tackle, then throwing downfield for an easy first down. The quarterback will often complete this type of pass because they have enough time before pressure is applied (unless the defense runs a blitz), and it’s less risky than attempting a deep pass where they might get intercepted.

Positives & Negatives Of Play-Action In Football

Play action has been a significant part of the game of football for years and has been most notably used by Tom Brady. However, over the years in the NFL, teams have begun using it more often than ever to gain easy yards instead of relying on deeper pass routes.

Play action can lead to significant gains and first downs when appropriately executed; however, every good thing has drawbacks.

The drawback to play-actions is the risk of injury. On a play-action deep pass, players are “faking” as if they are going for a run. This can lead to very awkward hits between defenders and the quarterback if they blitz while he’s still holding the ball.

The NFL has already seen multiple injuries across seasons caused by play-action. The most common are ankle injuries and concussions.

For example:

Fumbles (won and lost) and sacks (resulting in a loss of yards) also happen more often with play-action than average passes.

So, who does this? Most offenses implement play actions to keep the defense guessing. Some teams like New Orleans, San Francisco, New England, Baltimore, and Green Bay use this method the most.

Another negative aspect of play-action is that it can be very predictable for defenses to stop. If an offense uses play-action too often, then the defense will know when it’s fake and, as a result, will stop running with the receivers. This doesn’t mean that play action is not practical or cannot be used but instead means that an offense needs to mix up play-action with other types of plays in order for them to execute correctly.

One more downside is that when defenses are expecting a play-action deep pass, they will jump on it quickly, so quarterbacks need to be more careful than usual.

I remember watching the Atlanta Falcons a few years ago. It appeared as if Matt Ryan was going to throw a pass deep downfield on 2nd and 7; however, he faked a handoff instead and threw an easy completion for a first down.

This method of play-action passing for an easy completion is very effective and will continue to help offenses all around the league create big plays that lead to success.

The play-action pass is great for drawing the defenders up to the line of scrimmage and then throwing a quick fade or quick slant down behind them.

While there are both advantages and disadvantages to play-actions, NFL teams will continue to use it the same way they have in years past because, at the end of the day, it can be very beneficial and is a good tool to keep your game balanced.

What Not To Do When Running A Play-Action Pass

The quarterback fakes a handoff and draws defenders close to him while another offensive player runs past them, usually for a quick pass play. Using a play-action pass is a great way to use the defense’s aggressiveness against them.

The key to running an effective play-action pass is making sure that all of your receivers run crisp routes and come back to the quarterback at precisely the right time. A poorly thrown ball by the QB can be very damaging for any offense, especially if that pass is intercepted.

Here are some examples of what not to do when running a play-action pass:

  • Don’t stop your feet when faking a handoff.
  • Don’t step forward with the wrong foot while passing, which will make you throw off balance and be easy to recognize as a fake.
  • Keep your eyes on the defense at all times and know where each of your receivers are supposed to be.
  • Make sure that your passing routes and formations match up with the rest of your plays to stay balanced.
  • Don’t drop back too far, or else you’ll give away more of a fake than needed, and it will be even easier for defenders to stop the pass play.
  • Don’t stare at the receiver as they’re running their route. Instead, keep your eyes focused on the defense, so you know how best to respond after the ball is snapped.


You take the snap, and it’s going through one hole between the lineman for a decent gain. It appears as if you’ve set up a play-action pass where a receiver will run past the defense for easy completion, but instead, you throw it to the running back or wide receiver who is not expecting the ball. This will disappoint your whole team and give the defense more of an advantage than they already had. So, don’t do that!

Why Is It Called A Play-Action?

When forward passes were introduced to the game, there were two different terms to designate plays. What we know as a run was initially called a “Play”, and funnily enough, what we call a pass, was known back in the days as a “Pass”.

In the earlier days of football, there was no such thing as routes or blocking schemes. Quarterbacks knew more or less where the receivers would be and just threw the ball in their general direction.

On the contrary, runs (or Plays as they called them) were much more organized and prepared. These plays would be the central focus of practice sessions.

So in essence, when a team performed a “play-action pass”, it meant that they were faking a run to actually throw a pass.

Who Invented The Play-Action?

To answer this question, we first need to consider what truly was the first play-action pass to be completed in football history.

John Heisman is widely regarded as the first coach to call a fake handoff to the running back in order to perform a passing play.

However, the first player to perform a play-action as we know it today was George Halas in the 1920s. Halas would later in his life coach the Chicago Bears and have them run a “play-fake” tactic that is pretty much how we know play-action in modern football.

Hank Stram and Bill Walsh were two coaches that have been famous for perfecting and incorporating play-action quite often in their game plans.

When Was The First Play-Action Run?

According to historic reports, the first play-action was run during the 1940 NFL championship game between George Halas’ Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins.

Can You Score More Points With A Play-Action?

While scoring a touchdown from a play-action does not increase the number of points your team will score, performing a play-action will increase your expected points and yards per attempt.

They often create an unfair advantage for the offense if the defense isn’t anticipating it, especially on early downs.

4th & 10

Though play-action passes are good for drawing defenders up to the line of scrimmage, if a quarterback fakes it poorly or doesn’t draw in all of the defenders, there could be a big hole in the offensive line for a defender to run through and get an easy interception or sack.

If a wide receiver runs his route too slow after passing by a defender, not only will it give the defender a chance to make a play on the football, but it will also destroy the timing of the play.

When running your play-action passing game, take the time to make sure that you are making all of the proper fakes and handoffs, that your receivers run crisp routes at full speed, and that your linemen give their quarterbacks enough time in the pocket to complete their passes.

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Brad Smith
Brad Smith
Brad Smith has been coaching high school Football for 6 years in Florida. He and his wife have 3 beautiful children who he hopes will become the first Jaguars to win a Superbowl. Other than Football, Brad loves American litterature, parenting, gardening, and home remodeling.