“A very wise coach once told me, ‘If you really want play-action, you better pull a guard'” — Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III agree

The title is a quote from former Stanford and current San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, from the video clip below. And it’s absolutely true. While much is rightfully made about whether a quarterback does an effective job of selling a run fake on play-action, the reality is that the offensive line plays just as big of a role in convincing a defense that a play is a run. Indeed, the play-action pass is probably the best weapon offenses have, one far too often underutilized by modern spread offenses. As Bill Walsh once explained:

Let's go deep

The Play-Pass is the one fundamentally sound football play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense. I truly believe it is the single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense. By using the play-pass as an integral pant of your offense you are trying to take advantage of a defensive team that is very anxious very intense and very fired-up to play football. The play-pass is one of the best ways to cool all of that emotion and intensity down because the object of the play-pass is to get the defensive team to commit to a fake run and then throw behind them. Once you get the defensive team distracted and disoriented, they begin to think about options and, therefore, are susceptible to the running game.

It is no surprise then that maybe the two best play-action teams in college football season were Stanford and Baylor, two teams that just so happened to produce the two best quarterbacks in college football, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. In reviewing the game film of both players, I couldn’t help but marvel at how many of their touchdown passes were well designed, well executed “shot plays” that, while impressive, pretty much just required both quarterbacks to throw the ball to wide open receivers. And a huge part of that was because both of their offenses involved heavy doses of play-action with pulling linemen.

Just think about what kind of effect that has on the defense. While both players were impressive in their play-action fakes — and someone like Peyton Manning is even more impressive — if you’re a linebacker or safety and you see a pulling guard, you basically can’t help but tell yourself: “It’s a run.” Especially since run plays that involve a pulling guard means one thing: “power,” in the lowercase sense of lots of bodies will be at the point of attack so the defense needs to match numbers as well. And in the case of both Stanford and Baylor it also means “power” in another sense: the “Power-O” play where the linemen block down and a backside guard pulls to lead. Stanford, being a more of a pro-style offense, runs the traditional Power-O numerous times every game. Baylor, being a spread team, typically used the vaunted “inverted veer” play, which is the spread offense’s read-based adaptation of the old Power-O. Regardless, for opponents of both, a pulling guard meant trouble for Stanford’s and Baylor’s opponents run defenses, which, through the use of play-action, in turn meant trouble for their pass defense. That Bill Walsh guy just might have been onto something.

Yet it’s not as simple as telling your players to run a pass play and to have the guard pull around. Pass protection is the most important aspect of the modern passing game, and play-action passes are no exception. What I advocate below, which is what it seems to me all of the really successful teams use with pulling linemen in their play-action passing game, is to use a type of “slide” or “gap” protection. In brief, slide or gap protection requires the offensive linemen to protect their gap to one side or the other; by working in tandem, they should be able to zone block all games or stunts from the defense, protect the quarterback from the inside to out, and force any unblocked rushers to come from the edges.

The downside of gap protection is that all the gaps need protecting and the gaps are predetermined; the result of those two factors is that the offense typically loses an eligible receiver or two to the pass protection scheme (because he must stay blocking his gap) and gap protection can result in mismatches. But given the complexities of modern defenses, I think full slide and various half-man-to-man/half-slide protection schemes are the way to go, and they certainly make pulling a lineman in pass protection much simpler. So given that focus on slide protection, how have Luck, Griffin, and others put this into practice?

Let’s go pro. We’ll begin with the pro-style approach favored by Stanford and Luck. The concept is very simple: The quarterback and runningback will fake a run play, while the linemen take initial steps — keeping their helmet levels down — to simulate a run play. The linemen to the side the run fake is going to will step to the opposite direction, just as they would on the Power-O play, while the backside tackle steps to the playside to seal the gap. The backside guard pulls around just as he would on a run play, except instead of looking to lead up onto a linebacker he looks to block the “C” gap from the inside to out. (The gaps between offensive players are lettered, beginning with A out to D, beginning with the gap between the center and guard, then guard and tackle, and so on.)

The important point is that this leaves the offense one short away from the side of the run-fake, so the offense will have to account for that with either a fullback or tight-end/H-back type, as shown in the diagram below. With the H-back plus the five offensive linemen (the four who are simply stepping and sealing off their gaps plus the pulling guard who is sealing the C gap to the opposite side), the offense should have a sound six-man “surface” covering the backside C gap through the frontside C gap. This isn’t to say there cannot be any penetration by the defense, but if there is it is because of technique and skill, not scheme.

The runningback who is faking the run play can be given a few different assignments. One, he can be given no blocking assignment and be told to simply run a route. This can work fine but unless it is some kind of specific play — like that you want him to run a wheel route up the sideline — I wouldn’t recommend this. Another tactic is to let him check-release the “D” gap to his side and, if no defender shows up, he would then run a route. This is a solid strategy, as although it is a gap or zone protection scheme he should still be able to check-release because all he is doing is seeing if there is an outside rusher. Moreover, he can help the pulling guard as that player might need some help sealing his gap. Finally, my preferred method is to have the runningback check both the frontside and backside D gaps, as shown in the diagram. To do this effectively he should get a good pre-snap read of potential threats. The reason I like this is because unless you have a specific play for him in mind the point of this kind of play-action is not to dump it off to the runningback and the thing I am most concerned with is some kind of overload blitz from one side or the other resulting in a hit on my quarterback. Indeed, if the blitz is clear enough — and the quarterback doesn’t check out of the play — the runningback is instructed to ignore his run-fake responsibilities and simply protect the quarterback. Lastly, you can also keep the other tight-end in to block and either release the runningback or not to get a seven- or eight-man protection concept.

But regardless of which preferred method you choose, the fundamentals stay the same: It’s a very straightforward gap protection scheme, and the only thing that changes is that some of the responsibilities for gaps has been altered. Further, what I frequently find is that the blocks with this sort of concept are easy to execute because the defense is reading run and is more worried about filling gaps than it is getting to the quarterback. Below is another diagram showing the full play, this time with a fullback blocking the backside C-gap instead of an H-back.

In terms of route combinations, any basic two-man or three-man pass combination will work, with the best and most obvious combinations involving deep post routes and deep crossing routes. Andrew Luck’s favorite combination the past few seasons is the same one Greg Roman drew up for Brian Billick in the video below, involving a simple deep post with a deep cross from the opposite side.

And as the first clip in the video cut-ups below show, this remained very effective for Luck. It was also effective for another pretty good quarterback, Tom Brady, as the Patriots — despite being only a so-so rushing team — have been excellent over the years at using just this very play-action concept. See the video clips below for several examples of pulling a guard on play-action from relatively traditional pro-style looks.

The new new thing. The spread offense, as it has matured, seems like it continues to absorb and assimilate every offensive football concept ever run — quick passing game, option, single-wing, wing-T, etc — and the play-action passing game is no different. The rise of pistol and even three-back “Diamond” formations have been big factors in spread offenses incorporating using more and more play-action over the past few seasons. And with the rise of the “inverted veer,” which involves a pulling guard and has the quarterback read a play-side defender (as opposed to a backside defender as with the zone read), it was only inevitable that offenses would use that play as the foundation for play-action.

And no one did it better this past season than Art Briles and Robert Griffin III at Baylor. Griffin, of course, throws a beautiful deep ball — probably the best I’ve seen from a collegiate player in at least a decade. But he also benefited from a lot of wide open deep tosses, often off this very run action. The typical inverted veer play is as drawn up below:


So how do you adapt this to play-action using the same principles as above? You guessed it: The line to the play-side blocks down while the pulling linemen is responsible for the defensive end to his side, i.e. the “C” gap.

One important note is that as I have drawn this up — which is how Baylor typically ran it — there are only five offensive players pass blocking. Unlike above where the backside tackle steps down and an H-back or fullback has the C gap, here the backside tackle just locks on to the defensive end. Note that one can easily put another blocker there backside to get a sound six-man surface.

In any event, as shown here as well as the video clips below, Baylor decimated people with this concept. They loved to fake the inverted veer one way and to have the backside slot get deep, often off of a fake-slant-and-go concept. But any passing concept should work, especially considering that the runningback becomes a swing or flare-control checkdown receiver.

So that’s how to use the pulling lineman with the inverted veer. The other method to pull a linemen in pass protection from a spread set — one used by many college and pro teams — is not quite as good in terms of the run fake but still does the trick and it provides a full six-man pass protection surface. In this method, shown below, the pulling linemen and the runningback go in opposite directions. I have shown this with a pulling tackle to mimic the common “Dart” run play, where the playside tackle pass sets and the backside tackle, not the backside guard, is the one pulling. For the play-action concept, essentially the interior line squeezes down while the runningback and pulling tackle are responsible for the C gaps — and outside rushers — to either side. And, as mentioned above, this has traditionally not been a difficult block because those defensive ends tend to read run and step down, waiting for a ballcarrier.

This concept works best for quick “pop” type passes over the middle, as the point is simply to freeze the defense for a bit so a pass can be squeezed behind them. Finally, see the video below for examples of Griffin and Baylor shredding teams with play-action from the inverted veer, along with some of the above six-man pass protection schemes sprinkled in.

For teams that pull linemen in their run game — and that use some slide or gap principles in pass protection — this pass protection concept is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. I highly recommend that every team begin using it. You might not have Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III but that’s really the point: They had those guys and both Baylor and Stanford still got receivers completely wide open. And the guy to thank for it is that big pulling guard.

  • Garland Peters

    That was impressive as hell. The writer/writers of this article deserve nothing but recognition as well as a nice paycheck for this fantastic article.

    Good job.

  • No discussion of pulling guards and play action is complete without a discussion of Oregon’s offense.

  • smartfootball

    Feel free to embed some video if you have some handy. Not sure if the fishduck guys have covered this yet. 

  • NoHuddleAirRaidForTheWin

    Chris, do you know why the Air Raid crowd, with Leach in particular are not a fan of play-action, considering how good of a concept it is? My guess would be the practice time factor combined with the lack of a running game and run plays out of the shotgun that complement play-action to make play-action fakes convincing-i.e. it’s not worth spending practice time on a concept that won’t be that useful. However, that may not be the case, there might be more to it than what I am thinking of.

  • smartfootball

    They traditionally haven’t run the ball enough for it to make a lot of sense. Most of the traditional run plays in that offense were based on draw or draw-like blocking too. Mumme literally had two run plays for a long time: a one-back draw and a lead-draw. Play-action only makes sense if you run the ball. 

  • I’ve watched  quite a bit of Oregon’s Offense and really haven’t notice to much play action with pulling lineman. I’m not saying %100 that they don’t run it,i just haven’t seen it. Now on the other hand they run a ton of play action off there zone read offense. I think this is very effective for them because there line stays with the zone read blocking scheme. Essentially there whole line pulls or shift right or left. Very hard for a defender to pick up if its a zone read run or pass. This video is from a game against Cal in 2010. http://youtu.be/Y2qI7x1nVoc 

  • Hey Chris – Quick question related to play action.

    I can still see at times in the NFL teams run a play-action on obvious passing downs. My take on that is that in those cases they don’t do it for misdirection purposes, but for QB/WR timing reasons, or maybe because they like the route combinations. Still doesn’t make a ton of sense for me. Am I missing something ?

  • jon wagner

    ND doesn’t do play action that well (doesn’t really look like a run many times in my opinion) but sometimes they pull a guard while doing it.

  • Leach teams don’t call run plays in the huddle. They call pass plays every time and check to runs from what the defense shows them. That makes it hard to set up a play pass. They probably dummy signal runs more than they actually fake runs, as a way of breaking signal tendencies.

    If they wanted to play pass it would have to come with a check at the line for those reasons.

    Plus they line split so wide that their form of zone blocking rules generally convert to man blocking, take the nearest down defender,etc. Pulling is less used for run plays by them for runs for splits purposes, they are more likely to pull or lead a lineman along the scrimmage line on a screen pass.

    How they formation lineman and wideout splits probably tell you more about a run fake than their actual handing off. With very wide splits it might make dual reads for blocking backs a different item as well. They might have dual inside reads inside of an inside/outside playside read.

  • Mr.Murder

    The Gibbs clinic he complains about puller play passes Knapp put in that his zone system didn’t replicate running on zone and cut blocking. His solution to dual reads was to free up tackles for outside rushers, combine the back and guard inside on a slide basis so the G could reset on outside rush by a down lineman or man up if he lined tight or tracked inside from snap. The back had to “run through” the extra blitzer if needed or off the switch on the DT for how the defensive tackle leads. This consistent inside, Big on Big blocking(BOB) as a man, fan or solid principal for the individual; or out(guard punch/slow, and back finish the DT off inside-out). The dual read went from inside/out Guard with Ricky Jackson end man pass rushing types screaming down, to a Tackle kickout with the back taking closer assignments to the ball, with Guard help. So his dual read is now a gap to either side of the man instead of hard inside or far outside. Each read is within reach of where he starts from now and the back’s block isn’t someone who gained momentum running from further out. This dual switch on the slide for the guard is what enables so many three and four wideout protections that stay consistent to run fits. A closer blocker on the dual read probably communicates the the adjustment better as well. The Tackle gets to his target quickly to slow that principal rusher, the Guard stays focused on the closest threat, then works off that, and the back has a defender who had to restart his pass rush on the inside, or the BOB principal of a player closer to his size if the G blocks an inside step on the D lineman over him. Also if a defense shows something to bring the back over, he is brought over a few less yards from having an inside share with the guard, so the ability to step up is less compromised as a blocker ca concentrate on targets closer to the quarterback.

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