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The impact of the play-action pass in the NFL

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Play-action passes were a big part of NFL offenses in 2012. Football Outsiders took a closer look on how each team fared both offensively and defensively.

Patrick McDermott

At one point last season, Washington left tackle Trent Williams asked quarterback Robert Griffin III what the Redskins were going to run on the first play, Griffin responded, "I don't know, probably some kind of run though. Either a run or a play-pass, that's usually how it goes."

Griffin wasn't exactly going out on a limb with his answer. The Redskins tallied the third-most rushing attempts in the NFL last season and a recent Football Outsiders study showed Washington ran play-action passes on 42 percent of pass plays, the highest percentage since Football Outsiders began tracking the data in 2005.

Washington's offense may have been easy to predict, but it wasn't easy to stop. With Alfred Morris a dangerous runner out of the backfield and the constant threat Griffin provided as a runner, the Redskins averaged 10.1 yards per play on play-action pass attempts, the second-highest mark in the league. The combination of a dual-threat quarterback and play-action proved to be effective for a few teams as San Francisco, Carolina and Seattle all ranked in the top 10 in yards per play when running play-action.

Football Outsiders has all the data, but here is a quick look at the five best and five worst offenses when using play-action.

Offense

Five best

1. Denver: 10.5 yards per play-action play, 58.20 percent DVOA with play-action, +4.0 yards per play with play-action

-- Peyton Manning was once again an effective play-action passer. Denver led the league averaging 10.5 yards per play-action pass. Denver was good whenever it through the ball so it's DVOA difference was just +11.30 percent.

2. Washington: 10.1 yards per play-action play, 66.70 percent DVOA with play-action, +4.6 yards per play with play-action

-- RG3's ability to run surely helped Washington's effectiveness with play-action and the Redskins exploited it. The Redskins had a DVOA difference of 61.6 percent, the highest in the league.

3. Miami: 9.0 yards per play-action play, 46.60 percent DVOA with play-action, +3.2 yards per play with play-action

-- The Dolphins may have averaged the third-highest yards per play-action attempt in the NFL, but Miami didn't exploit the success as much as other teams, running play-action passes on just 16 percent of passing plays.

4. Carolina: 8.9 yards per play-action play, 40.00 percent DVOA with play-action, +2.7 yards per play with play-action

-- Like Washington with Griffin, the Panthers used the threat of Cam Newton as a runner to help exploit teams with play-action. The Panthers ran play-action on 33 percent of passing plays, up from 20 percent in 2011.

5. New England: 8.8 yards per play-action play, 55.70 percent DVOA with play-action, +2.2 yards per play with play-action

-- How good was New England at passing in 2012? The Patriots posted a very good 55.70 percent DVOA on play-action passes, but it was just 0.50 percent better than the 55.20 percent it averaged on non-play-action passes.

Five worst

1. Oakland: 5.6 yards per play-action play, -7.30 percent DVOA with play-action, -1.0 yards per play with play-action

-- In terms of yards per play, no team was worse than the Raiders who were a full yard worse on play-action attempts.

2. San Diego: 5.6 yards per play-action play, -2.0 percent DVOA with play-action, -0.2 yards per play with play-action

-- Play-action passes haven't been San Diego's strong suit recently as the Chargers averaged +0.7 yards per play-action attempt in 2011.

3. Jacksonville: 5.8 yards per play-action play, -7.70 percent DVOA with play-action, +0.3 yards per play with play-action

-- You know your passing game isn't very good when you post a -7.70 percent DVOA on play-action passes and it's actually a 5.70 percent improvement.

4. Minnesota: 6.0 yards per play-action play, 12.90 percent DVOA with play-action, +0.6 yards per play with play-action

-- The threat of Adrian Peterson was enough to put Minnesota in the positive on play-action, but not by much. The Vikings, however, relied on it, running play-action on 35 percent of passing plays.

5. Chicago: 6.1 yards per play-action play, 19.20 percent DVOA with play-action, +0.1 yards per play with play-action

-- The Bears were just 0.1 yards per play better on play-action passes, but were considerably better in terms of DVOA with a 21.20 percent increase.

In addition to studying how offenses performed when using play-action, Football Outsiders also studied how defenses fared against play-action passes. The New Orleans Saints struggled immensely against the pass so it isn't a huge surprise to see they fared among the worst against play-action passes, but a few teams you may not have guessed also had issues against play-action.

Once again, you can read Mike Ridley's writeup and get the complete data at Football Outsiders with a quick look at the five best and five worst below.

Defense

Five best
1. Pittsburgh: 6.0 yards allowed per play-action play, -0.20 percent DVOA against play-action, +0.5 yards allowed per play with play-action

-- The Steelers defended the pass well in general, so it's not a surprise to see them fare well against play-action. They allowed the fewest yards per play, but their DVOA was only the eighth-lowest.

2. Detroit: 6.2 yards allowed per play-action play, -3.90 percent DVOA against play-action, -0.6 yards allowed per play with play-action

-- Detroit was not very good when defending traditional pass plays, but excelled against play-action. The Lions DVOA differential of -27.00 percent when facing play-action was the second-best in the NFL, trailing only Buffalo's 34.90 percent.

3. Minnesota: 6.2 yards allowed per play-action play, +2.20 percent DVOA against play-action, +0.0 yards allowed per play with play-action

-- Like Detroit, Minnesota wasn't great against traditional pass plays -- posting a 21.50 percent DVOA -- but improved considerably against play-action with a DVOA differential of -19.20 percent.

4. Denver: 6.4 yards allowed per play-action play, +10.50 percent DVOA against play-action, +1.4 yards allowed per play with play-action

-- The Broncos allowed the fourth-fewest yards per play-action attempt at 6.4, but were actually considerably worse against play-action. Denver allowed 5.1 yards per attempt facing traditional attempts and posted a DVOA of -15.00 percent. Their DVOA differential of +25.60 percent was in the bottom-third of the league. Teams, however, didn't take advantage. running just 17 percent play-action against Denver, the second-lowest percentage.

5. Buffalo: 6.5 yards allowed per play-action play, -11.20 percent DVOA against play-action, +0.0 yards allowed per play with play-action

-- No team had a bigger DVOA differential against play-action than the Bills who posted a differential of -34.90 percent. Buffalo's yards per play allowed was the same, but their DVOA dropped from +23.60 percent against non-play-action to -11.20 percent against play-action.

Five worst

1. New Orleans: 10.0 yards allowed per play-action play, +45.00 percent DVOA against play-action, +3.1 yards allowed per play with play-action

-- The Saints struggled against the pass, allowing an NFL-worst 8.1 yards per attempt and a big reason for that was major issues against play-action. The 10.0 yards per play allowed was 1.2 yards worse than the next closest team. According to the Football Outsiders report, New Orleans allowed 40 plays of 15 yards or more when facing play-action.

2. New York Giants: 8.8 yards allowed per play-action play, +19.10 percent DVOA against play-action, +2.0 yards allowed per play with play-action

-- Like New Orleans, the Giants struggled to defend the pass last season. However, unlike some teams who struggled significantly more against play-action, New York's DVOA differential of 14.20 percent was only 16th in the NFL.

3. Baltimore: 8.7 yards allowed per play-action play, +37.00 percent DVOA against play-action, +3.1 yards allowed per play with play-action

-- In terms of DVOA differential between non-play-action and play-action, no team was worse last season than the Ravens who allowed a differential of 42.20 percent. The differential of 3.1 yards per play was also tied for the worst.

4. Indianapolis: 8.7 yards allowed per play-action play, +43.40 percent DVOA against play-action, +2.3 yards allowed per play with play-action

-- Outside of the Saints, no team posted a worse DVOA against play-action than Indianapolis who posted a DVOA of 43.40 percent.

5. New England: 8.7 yards allowed per play-action play, +20.50 percent DVOA against play-action, +2.1 yards allowed per play with play-action

-- New England's DVOA differential of +8.40 percent was near league average, but that is only because the Patriots were well below average against non-play-action attempts.

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