Play-Action Puzzle … Game-Day Cup O’Chiefs

The play-action pass is one of the most underrated weapons available to a football offense.

When performed by a well schooled and practiced team, with all the “actors” playing their roles correctly, the play-action pass can devastate a defense. All it takes is a moment of hesitation from a defensive back or linebacker who thinks he’s about to stop the run, but then gets hit with a pass where invariably the defender is out of position.

As the Chiefs get ready to hit the final month of the 2010 regular season, they are developing into one of the better play-action offenses in the league. It will be a big part of their passing attack Sunday afternoon when the Chiefs welcome the Denver Broncos in an AFC West re-match. Kickoff is just after 12 noon and the TV coverage is available on CBS with Ian Eagle and Rich Gannon doing the talking.

Gannon can talk all day about the play-action pass because he was one of the best during his NFL career at faking the hand-off to a running back on what looked like a running play, only to keep the ball and throw it downfield.

The Chiefs have all the necessary ingredients to be a top-flight play-action offense. They have a head coach who believes in the edge the run fake and pass can give his team. They have a diligent quarterback who is intent on making it work. There is a veteran offensive line that is very good at making a play look like a run, while still preparing to block for the pass.

And most importantly, the Chiefs have a running game that really makes the play-action work. They are the NFL team leader in rushing with 174.3 yards per game. They like to run the ball, and they do it on average 35 times per game.

“When you run the ball the way we do, it wouldn’t make sense not to take advantage of the play-action game,” said offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. “If anybody should be able to make it work, it’s us.”

NFL quarterbacks used to take great pride in ball handling and faking. They were almost magicians as they would manipulate the ball in both the running and passing game, trying to fool the defense. Chiefs Hall of Fame QB Len Dawson was one of those guys.

“It was part of the game and we worked on it, practiced it constantly,” Dawson said. “Hank (Stram) was a very good quarterback coach and he coached ball handling. I’m not sure how much it gets coached in the league today.

“You don’t really see many quarterbacks who are good at the play-action.”

Cassel intends to be one of those quarterbacks because that’s what Haley wants from his offense. Going against a defense like the Denver unit they will see today, Haley wants there to be options for his offense and he wants to keep the opposing defense guessing.

“You just have to practice it, push it, work, concentrate on it and I think the guys eventually gain confidence that if it looks like run, the defense will react a little differently and it won’t be a like a drop back where they are pinning their ears back and exposing guys,” said Haley. “It is a fine-line though, something that as a coach we have to stress and have to push. I think the tendency is to get into pass protection mode.”

The play-action is all about misdirection and subterfuge and it doesn’t go just for the quarterback. It includes all 11 offensive players and starts with the guys up front. If they can’t fool those pass rushers in the front seven, the rest of the plays.

“I think the sell up front is a key thing that is hard to get guys to trust,” Haley said. “Especially the guys up front because whether they hear play action or drop back, they know they have to pass protect. Sometimes it is hard to get them to really trust and believe that they can go ahead and keep low pad level and takes an aggressive step and that they are not going to be hung out to dry. That is always a tough thing.”

Cassel said: “It starts with the sell and the play-action sell starts with the guys up front and also the running back. We are trying to get that pull on the linebackers and give them the feel that we are actually going to run the ball and then hopefully we can get the ball behind them.”

Defensive backs, especially inexperienced safeties tend to react with a burst toward the line of scrimmage when they see that ball apparently being tucked into the running back’s belly. Here’s where so much depends on the sleight of hand by the quarterback.

“Sometimes you want the quarterback really selling, sometimes you don’t,” said Haley. “Sometimes you want his focus to be down the field and the sell to come from other places. I do a lot of the talking with the defensive guys and listening to them to just really try and figure out what exactly the key is because sometimes you see different things. Different things happen the linebacker will bite up in there.

“I will never forget our Wild Card game (with Arizona) against Atlanta. It was third and 18 and we ran a little draw fake, double seam and one of the best linebackers that I have seen in a long time, Keith Brooking, bit on it and I didn’t think it would happen but it happened and thankfully it did and we got a first down. It is a lot of things, it is where there focus is and you just have to figure out on a lot of these and you just have to figure out on each and every call where the focus is because it changes.”

All of this is germane to the Chiefs-Broncos game. There’s the K.C. running game that has given Denver problems in the last two seasons. Plus, there’s a Broncos secondary filled with inexperienced players because of injuries that have taken safeties Brian Dawkins and Darcel McBath and CB Andre Goodman out of the game. That means snaps for rookie DBs like Perrish Cox, Syd’Quan Thompson, Cassius Vaughn and Kyle McCarthy. At one point last Sunday against St. Louis, veteran QB Champ Bailey was on the field with three rookies and feeling like a very old man.

Deciphering the play-action has been one of the toughest things for Chiefs rookie strong safety Eric Berry to deal with in making the transition from college to pro football.

“I’ve been caught a few times,” Berry admitted. “I’ve learned you just have to trust your preparation. You have to know when they like to use play-action and who they use. Like everything else, I have to make sure I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing before I commit.”

As long as the Chiefs can successfully run the football, they will push the play-action passing game. They will do plenty of it against the Broncos.

PULLING MORE ON CASSEL’S NUMBERS

The AFC’s offensive player of the month will try to extend his hot streak into the month of December on Sunday against the Broncos.

Matt Cassel’s improved accuracy and ball protection has combined with the play of WR Dwayne Bowe to lift the quarterback’s passing numbers to levels he’s never seen before. Here’s a breakdown on some specific situations and how Cassel’s throwing the ball in them.

Category 

Cmp.

Att. 

% 

Yds. 

TD 

INT 

Sacks 

Rating 

Overall 

195

323 

60.4 

2,307 

22 

15 

99.7 

Red Zone 

21

38 

55.3 

151 

14 

93.3 

1st Down

76

127 

59.8 

903 

10 

101.3 

2nd Down

66

93 

71.0 

750 

103.8 

3rd Down

49

96 

51.0 

612 

88.5 

1st Quarter

36

66 

54.5 

355 

80.1 

4th Quarter

48

86 

55.8 

540 

101.9 

vs. Blitz 

65

107 

60.7 

756 

12 

111.7 

Non-Blitz 

130

216 

60.2 

1,551 

10 

10 

93.7 

Shotgun 

98

165 

59.4 

1,122 

88.5 

No-Shotgun 

97

158 

61.4 

1,185 

14 

111.4 

2 WRs 

52

84

61.9

760

8

1

4

118.2

3 WRs

66

108

61.1

737

9

3

5

97.6

4-5 WRs

57

100

57.0

657

3

0

5

87.0


5 Responses to “Play-Action Puzzle … Game-Day Cup O’Chiefs”

  • December 5, 2010  - Craig says:

    Hi Bob,
    Great article as usual. The stats I think tend to support your premise. Cassel is better under the center with 2 recievers where play action could come into plan than in the shotgun where it is obviously a passing formation. With that said his numbers are very good and better than I had anticipated earlier this year. Go Chiefs. Kick some Donkey butt.


  • December 5, 2010  - Dave71 says:

    This game worries me-to just assume this game will be different from the last game because it’s at home is a big mistake. Remember what this team has done to us 2 of the last 3 times we’ve played, including last year in arrowhead. They are much better than 3-8 and their strengths play to our weaknesses-very good OL vs. weak pass rush, strong passing game vs. suspect pass defense,made worse now with injuries to Flowers & Lewis. I think the Chiefs are being VERY well coached though; it will just take a great total team effort to win this week & next against S.D.


  • December 5, 2010  - bhive01 says:

    Subterfuge. Love that word Bob.


  • December 5, 2010  - Randy says:

    I’d like to see us use the naked boot on the Donkeys, too. Just like they used to use on us…


  • December 6, 2010  - Gerardo says:

    wow! more sacks with no blitz and in shot-gun that are supossed to give Cassel more time to deliver the football. Interesting




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