New Orleans Saints: Breakdown of play-action and bootlegs

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 16: Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints hands off the ball to running back Latavius Murray #28 during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Mercedes Benz Superdome on December 16, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 16: Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints hands off the ball to running back Latavius Murray #28 during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Mercedes Benz Superdome on December 16, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

The New Orleans Saints’ wildcard round opponents, the Minnesota Vikings, use play-action very frequently, to good effect. How will New Orleans counter it?

The key to stopping the Minnesota Vikings offense is to stop their play-action and bootlegs. If the New Orleans Saints can do this, they will shut them down; if not, it will likely be a shoot-out.

Play-action usage has been rising steadily the last couple of years. There has been a lot of debate among the analytics community and the rest of the NFL community on the effectiveness of play-action and how frequently to use it.

There is a general consensus among the analytics community that teams should use play-action much more frequently than they currently do. Play-action is used about 20 percent of passing attempts in the NFL.

Robert Mays, currently of the ringer, found back in 2014 that play-action passes were the most efficient play in the NFL. His study found that running plays lost expected points on average (-0.04 EPA), while passes averaged +0.04 EPA.

The play-action gained +0.17 on average, 4 times more than the typical pass.

The quality or quantity of the run game has little to no impact on the quality of the play-action game, which is contrary to the popular opinion that you have to set up play-action by first running the ball.

As play-action is simply a different form of passing, it’s much more dependent on the quality of the passing game.

On the flip side, it could be argued that using play-action helps out the run game as it helps keep linebackers and defensive linemen in position for longer- I.e after the defense comes to expect play-action, they will be less focused on their run responsibilities.

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Also contrary to popular opinion, increased use of play-action actually increases its efficiency. Josh Hermsmeyer, from FiveThirtyEight, found that the middle linebacker, who is the most likely to be affected by play-action on average, is affected about the same by a team’s first play-action as their 11th play-action.

So, there aren’t really any strong arguments against using play-action more.

Even though play-action passes are longer developing than non-PA passes, the sack rate is lower. This suggests that the play-action freezes the defensive linemen, making it easier for the O-line to hold up.

Another reason is that most play-action is used off fake zone runs. Zone runs get the defensive line moving horizontally, thus making it harder for them to rush upfield towards the QB.

This is probably the main reason why it’s used a lot on shot plays, such as the yankee (which is also sometimes referred to as burner) and Mills concepts.

This increased aggressiveness increases efficiency as most teams are not as aggressive as they should be. – between 2015-2018, the average air yards per attempt on play-action passes was 8.5, while being only 6.7 for non-PA passes

The following is an example of the Saints using play-action to set up a shot downfield. Notice that they have the ball on the Eagles’ 46 as teams mostly call shot plays when around the opponents 40-50 yard line.

Play-action passes are generally better against zone coverage rather than man.

This is mostly because the fake helps vacate space in the zones in the middle of the field, while against man the defenders will have their eyes on their receiver rather than the QB or offensive line, so they will not be as impacted as much.

Play-action can work especially well against safeties who have run responsibilities, for example in cover 4/quarters.

Concepts such as the aforementioned Mills and Yankee, are designed to exploit a safety and get a WR isolated on a post against a CB with outside leverage.

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Safeties with run responsibilities will likely move towards the line of scrimmage following a run fake, thus opening up the window to throw it over their heads. Play-action is all about getting the defense out of position.

The Ravens’ offensive coordinator, who uses play-action very frequently, said that “if you really want play-action to work, you better pull a guard.” This helps sell the play-action as a pulling guard is a very good indicator of a power run.

Any linebacker or defensive linemen who sees a pulling guard will believe it’s a run. The downside of pulling a guard is that it will likely leave a WR or TE blocking a DE, which is usually not favorable.

So, in summary, I think play-actions are a great way to buy more time for your QB, and to open up throwing lanes over the middle of the field. I think they work best for zone running schemes and QB’s that are good throwing on the run, but every team should use them more frequently.

The great Bill Walsh agrees with this opinion.

"“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.”"


Bootlegs are a variation of play-action pass as the QB rolls out of the pocket rather than stay in it. Outside zone runs are always used as the run-fake. Bootlegs are best used with QBs that are effective at throwing on the run and/or are good at scrambling as they’ll usually have an opportunity to use their legs.

Bootleg pass is usually read from low-to-high as if the QB can get the ball to the underneath receiver there will likely be an opportunity to add quite a lot of yards after the catch.

Flood/sail concepts are frequently used. These are three-level route combinations, which attack the deep, intermediate, and flat areas of the field- usually a go route, an over route from the backside, and a flat route.

They give the QB a half-field read, which makes it easier for inexperienced QBs or ones that are bad at processing and decision making.

Bootleg throwback screens are used in most cases as counter-punches to the traditional bootleg. They have the possibility of being very big plays as the defense will likely start overplaying the side the QB bootlegs to as they expect him to only target that side.

To defend against bootlegs, defenses usually have ‘boot rules’ that help them defend against bootlegs. The key route on bootlegs is usually the intermediate one, so the main boot rule is for the LB’s to sink back at angle to clog up the window for the intermediate route.

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As they sink towards the bootleg side, it gives the offense an opportunity to throw back towards the backside of the play, as there’ll likely be space vacated.