Play-action is a cheat code in the NFL. Used correctly, teams can eat up chunks of field and keep a defense on its heels.
The Indianapolis Colts used play-action passes to perfection in their 29-26 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 10, picking up a handful of chunk plays to help them move down the field against one of the league’s tougher defenses.
The Colts have typically been a methodical offense that chips away at a defense a few yards at a time, setting up short third-down conversions. Head coach Frank Reich and Andrew Luck opened up the offense this week, and that led to Luck’s highest yards per attempt output (9.8) of the season so far. Prior to this game, his highest mark was 7.7 in Week 8 against the Oakland Raiders.
Here are three plays that show how the Colts were able to fake out the Jacksonville defense to a big day through the air.
Indianapolis used play-action to get Jack Doyle open out of the backfield
The Colts took advantage of Jacksonville’s aggressive front seven by lining up in heavy personnel to give the look of a run play. They lined up tight end Jack Doyle in the backfield as a fullback and ran him right towards the gap that he would be blocking if it were a run play.
The Jaguars linebackers bit hard on the run fake, and their linebackers and safeties were in no position to pick him up out of the backfield. The deep route by T.Y. Hilton at the top of the screen vacated the area for Doyle to run free for a 20-yard gain.
This play-action toss was in the shorter area of the field close to the line of scrimmage, but Indianapolis broke a couple deep passes down the field using play-action as well.
Deep crossers with play-action fakes are automatic
One of the best uses of play-action is throwing deep routes across the field — especially with a speed demon at wide receiver like Hilton.
Jacksonville is running a three-deep zone blitz with five players rushing the passer. After the play-action fake, all three defenders playing underneath zone coverage came crashing down towards the line of scrimmage. That created a wide open passing lane for Luck to find Hilton in the middle of the field on a deep crosser.
Jalen Ramsey tried to recover on the play by breaking out of his zone to chase Hilton, but it was too late.
Also notice the deep post route run by the receiver at the top of the screen? He pulls away the the cornerback playing zone coverage on that side of the field and the free safety — there was no one within a few yards of Hilton before he caught the ball.
More deep crosser fun with Hilton!
This was the one time that the Jaguars didn’t bite down on the run fake by the Colts, probably because Luck didn’t completely turn his back to the defense. Still, the one step forward by the linebacker covering Hilton was enough to get him the separation he needed for a big gain.
Indianapolis lined up Hilton close to the left tackle, to hopefully get a linebacker playing man coverage against their fastest receiver. That worked beautifully — Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack took one step towards the line of scrimmage and immediately had to redirect and cover a sprinting Hilton across the field. He had no chance.
Hilton was able to sneak behind the Jaguars defense, and the Colts offensive line gave Luck just enough time to fire that ball in there for a big gain.
How can the Colts continue to use play-action in the future?
Simply put, the Colts should be upping their play-action usage. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the game, an offensive line that hasn’t allowed a sack in a month, and a receiver, Hilton, that thrives on getting open down the field.
According to Football Outsiders, the Colts are running play-action on just 19 percent of their plays, which is 25th in the NFL. For comparison, the Los Angeles Rams rank first running play-action on a whopping 36 percent of their plays. There have been studies that show rushing success and play-action success are not correlated, so the Colts shouldn’t let the occasional poor rushing performance get in the way of more play-action passes.
The Colts showed just how lethal action passes can be, and after beating the Jaguars, they sit just two games out from the AFC South lead. If the offense can keep clicking and getting bette each week, they have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs, which would be extremely impressive considering they started the season 2-5.