The Ultimate Guide to Play Action in Football


Youth football quarterback in blue runs play action.

Football is a game of reactions and assignments. Each player on offense is responsible for certain routes, blocks, and if you are the QB, reading the defense. In the event the QB sees the potential for a big play, they might audible to play action.

So what is play action in football?

Play action is a type of play where the QB fakes handing off the football, before throwing it to a receiver. Play action is effective because it makes the defense think the offense is running the ball. This leads to the defense trying to stop the run, often leaving receivers open downfield.

By no means is play action foolproof, but it can lead to some huge offensive plays. For more detailed information on why play action is so effective, where the name comes from and more, we encourage you to keep reading.

Why Is it Called Play Action?

Play action became a staple in football playbooks during the 60’s. The first Super Bowl saw Len Dawson use play action to complete a 31-yard pass, which was the biggest play the Chiefs had in a game dominated by the Packers.

In the 60s, offenses heavily favored the run game. Defenses would line up with corners and linebackers crowding the line of scrimmage, daring offenses to pass the ball.

After constant blitzes, play action was used more often and to devastating effect, forcing defenses to stay honest.

Play Action: Roles of Each Position

Football wide receiver in purple puts his arms out to catch the football.

If play action was described in a movie cast you would have the director, lead actor, and supporting actor. The director of the play would be the QB.

It is his job to know how play action plays begin and what the result of the play should be.

The lead actor in this scheme is the running back (RB). His job is to sell the fake as the primary option and make it appear that he has the ball, even if it means making the defense only misstep for a brief second.

Finally, you have the supporting actor. This is the role of the player that will benefit the most from the actions of the director and lead actor.

The supporting actor, which is normally a wide receiver or tight end, will act like he is blocking or uninvolved in the play to show the man assigned to him that they need to react to the actions of the other players.

It is at that moment when the defensive player makes the wrong read that the offense has the opportunity for a huge play.

Why Does Play Action Work?

Every football team in the country has play action concepts built into their playbooks. Play action concepts branch from the success of other plays or plays that the offense more frequently uses.

In today’s world of technology, teams from the high school level all the way to the pros chart out tendencies of opponents. By reviewing opponents’ tendencies, the offense can run play action plays that show one thing, while capitalizing on the weakness(es) of the defense.

That is what makes play action so effective and hard to cover if you are a defensive player.  

Thinking that you know 73% of the time this offense runs a certain play in a certain situation, only to have them do something else mid-play can be very demoralizing and devastating.

Play Action vs RPO

Football quarterback in blue receives the snap.

Play action is a concept used by teams at every level. As we discussed previously, it is an effective way to put defensive players in wrong positions, giving the offense a chance at converting a big play.

There is also another way the offense can do this. The recent trend of the “RPO” has taken over the game of football.

RPO stands for “run-pass-option”, and is a combination of play action and read option, which makes it difficult for the defenses to stop consistently.

With RPO, the QB is typically in the shotgun formation (3-4 yards behind the center) and has a RB lined up next to him. As the ball is snapped the QB motions to hand the ball off to the RB.

When the QB starts this motion, he typically looks downfield to determine what he wants to do with the ball. By looking down the field the QB can read what the defensive backs and linebackers are reacting to.

If the defense drops back into deep coverage down the field the QB can hand the ball off for a running play. The beauty and effectiveness of the RPO is if the defense reacts to the motion of the QB handing the ball off.

If the QB sees the linebackers and/or defensive backs approaching the line of scrimmage, he can pull the ball from the belly of the RB and throw the ball downfield to a receiver.

The effectiveness of the RPO is that even if the defense played their assignments perfectly, the QB can react to the blocking and coverage to decide what to do with the ball.

What Is a Read Option?

The opposite of the RPO is the “read option.” The read option is intended to be a running play and there are many formations that an offense can line up in for this type of play.

We will focus on the 2 mainly used for the read option. Traditionally the read option is ran in the “I” and “Shotgun” formations.

The I-formation is when the QB is under center with the fullback (FB) and the RB behind him, spaced 2 yards apart. To run the read option from this formation, the QB takes the snap and motions to handoff the ball to the FB to run straight up the middle.

The QB then determines how the defense reacts to the play. If the defense collapses down and tries to go after the FB, the QB can pull the ball out and toss it to the RB who can run around the defense.

By getting the defense to commit to the FB, the offense is more likely to have room for a play to the outside. This mainly happens when the defensive end bites on the play and leaves room for the RB to run.

In the event the defensive end decides to wait for the QB to make a decision, the best option for the offense would be to hand off the ball to the FB.

The second common type of formation to run a read option is the shotgun formation. The shotgun formation starts with the QB 3 yards behind the center.

The center then snaps the ball to the QB, almost like he’s throwing the ball backward. This may seem easy when it is described but there’s always the chance of a bad snap altering the game.

After the snap is received by the QB, he goes through the same reads as mentioned in the I-formation. The QB starts the motion to hand the ball off to the RB lined up next to him, while reading the defense.

This is similar to the RPO we described earlier, but without the option to pass.

You may wonder why you wouldn’t always use RPO instead of the read option, on account for only being able to run the ball with the read option.

The key to using these options is based on the tendencies of the defense, if the defense normally runs zone coverage, read option would likely be more effective with the wide receiver(s) becoming a blocker(s) instead of a passing option(s).

When a receiver(s) acts as a blocker, he can inhibit the cornerback and make it more likely the ball can be ran outside due to the lack of containment. This may only result in a couple of extra yards, but those extra yards can add up over 60 minutes.

What Is a Draw Play in Football?

©Kzenon via Canva.com

After learning about play action and RPO we should touch upon another type of play that utilizes motions. The “draw” play can be run out of any formation that has a QB and RB.

The QB can take the snap from under center or in the shotgun formation.

After the snap, the QB looks down the field like he’s going to pass the ball before handing it off to the RB. The QB fakes the pass to make the defense back off the line of scrimmage, so the RB has more room to run the ball.

Draws are effective because it shows the defense one thing and then does something else. Draws, along with play action and RPO plays, keep the defense guessing.

Draws are very low risk in terms of turnover potential and they help you move the chains.

Play Action Summary

The concept of play action has been a part of the football landscape for many decades. This might seem like an easy concept to implement and perfect but this is far from reality.

Not only do you have to act out play action to fool the defense, but you also have to be able to read the defense, remain disciplined the rest of the play and convert on the pass.

The linemen have to charge the line of scrimmage to sell the run, knowing the QB might opt to throw the ball. The RB also has to sell the run and make the linebackers step up to help stop the run.

Finally, the QB after faking the handoff has to read the defense and make an accurate throw to a receiver. All of this happens within a matter of seconds and the slightest misreads can result in a touchdown, turnover, or failed play.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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