What Is Play Action In Football

What Is Play Action In Football?

When watching a football game, you’ll often hear the commenters use the term play-in-action. It can be confusing watching the offense and not sure which player has the ball. Players can fake runs to try and confuse the defense.

Even camera crews have sometimes followed the wrong player who doesn’t have the ball. So, what is play action in football?

Play action is when a quarterback (QB) fakes handing the ball to the offense. It tricks the defense that the offense is running with the ball.

However, the QB will then throw the ball to a receiver. Defenders will try stopping a run of the offense leaving the receivers with an open downfield.

There are different types of play-in-action. Keep reading below to learn more.

Why Is It Called Play Action?

The name play action comes from the incidents leading to the QB throwing the ball to the receiver.

It’s a play that started in the 1960s with Lee Dawson using it first in the Super Bowl. Dawson made a massive 31-yard pass which was their biggest ever in the game with the Packers.

The QB delays a pass for a few seconds after the snap as the offensive line engages the defense.

The running back will fake a run upfield as if they have the ball to deceive the defense. It’s a scenario of play-action-pass hence the name play action.

Who Invented the Play Action Pass?

It’s quite hard narrowing down to the inventor of the play action. This is one of the oldest plays in football.

player in position

Some credit can go to the historic Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne. In the 1930s, he noticed play passes were more successful when QB and receivers could hide the play outcome.

It’s an old play that became active in 1906 when forward passes were allowed in football.

When Did the First Play Action Happen?

The first play action in the NFL was experienced in 1940 when the Chicago Bears played the Washington Football team.

Playing a historic T-formation, the Bears used the first ever play of action to run winners 73-0. By then, most fans would only see it as a fake play.

Since play action has grown tremendously with most teams utilizing it in their offenses.

A good example is the 2019 Super Bowl season where the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams used it effectively.

Tom Brady of the Patriots is thought to be one of the best QBs in running play action.

How Many Points Can You Score on a Play Action?

A play action can lead to different outcomes depending on the success of the first QB fake. If everything goes to plan and the route diagram, the best possible result of play action is a touchdown worth 6 points.

A successful play action sees the QB get the pass to a tight end or wide receiver. This can lead to a continuation of the offensive drive or a first down. However, in most cases, a play action leads to a gain of around 8 yards.

When play-action becomes so believable, the defense can leave a lot of space for the wide receivers. This can then lead to the QB having a lot of space to throw a deep pass which leads to a touchdown.

When To Use Play Action Pass?

Play action passes can be used when teams are 60/40 or 50/50 in their play calls. Below are different scenarios when to use play action.

player holding the football

Play Action From Under Center

You can run play action from under center which by far is the most convincing. Play action from under the center has everything looking the same for the QBs.

After a snap, just before the ball is handed off, a QB will put the ball into the stomach and prepare to throw. He does everything right pretending to hand off the ball.

Quarterbacks can employ different tricks to deceive the defender. They can put their hands into the belly of running backs without having the ball.

In most cases, the offense falls for this trick as they don’t see the ball.

Play Action From Shotgun

The play action from a shotgun happens in the same manner as under center. However, in shotgun, players will see and read exactly what they need to read downfield.

You’ll see a QB place the ball into the running back’s stomach with two hands as it should happen. However, he will not pass the ball but instead remove it slowly and throw it downfield.

In a way, quarterbacks will be faking the running backs while passing the ball to wide receivers and tight ends. 

Naked Bootleg Play Action

Lastly, we have the naked bootleg play action where the quarterback runs in the opposite direction after faking play. The term naked is because quarterbacks don’t get any protection once they fake a run.

This means after playing a fake, they need to deliver the ball pretty fast. A naked bootleg play action requires quarterbacks that can run fast.

three football player

Why Does Play Action Work?

Play action works since teams tend to review opponents’ tendencies and how they run play. Teams tend to think they know how their opponents will run the ball most of the time.

However, they discover something of the opposite in mid-play, and the result can be very devastating.

The playa action concept stems from the fact that teams run certain plays frequently. So when they change those plays by faking runs, play action becomes quite effective.

How Do You Defend Against Play Action?

You can defend against play action by first knowing what a play action is. Secondly, you need to have excellent discipline with your eyes. The key is to study and understand keenly the move of the quarterback.

The key to defending a play action is reading the demeanor of the quarterbacks and running backs. Check the line and quickly compare the demeanor of the two positions.

In certain situations, you just need to be reactive and 

Can You Score More Points With a Play Action?

A score from a play action will not give you more points. If a play action results in a touchdown, then you still get six points. However, attempting play action increases your scoring chances and the number of yards you gain.

a football game

What Is the Difference Between Play Action and RPO?

The difference between play action and RPO is that the lineman is blocking passing as the QB fakes a run in play action. In RPO, the QB will be reading the linebacker to hand off or throw as the lineman blocks a run.

What Is a Draw Play?

A draw play in football is when a QB fakes a play to make the defense back off the scrimmage line. He then passes the ball to a running back who has more room.


Overall, the play action remains one of the best misdirections in the offense to get the defense off the scrimmage line. It is a versatile play that can work entirely off any offense formation.

It usually starts with a fake handoff to a running back tricking the defense to leave the receiver open. They then pass the ball to a receiver with ample space to advance.

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