While the New England Patriots have a future first-ballot Hall of Famer at quarterback — you may have heard from him, Tom Brady is his name — the team is using a rather balanced approach to attack opposing defenses: through their first 14 games of the regular season, the Patriots have dropped back to pass a combined 535 times, and advanced the football via the run on 401 occasions, combining for a 57:43 ratio.
This comparatively even distribution of pass and run has a trickle-down effect on how the offense as a whole operates, which in turn makes it harder to defend. When you don’t know the tendencies, you do not know what to prepare for. One aspect which clearly illustrates this is the play-action game — the quarterback faking a handoff to a potential runner only to keep the football himself and throw it.
This season, the Patriots have made plenty of usage of play-action concepts. In fact, the team ranks third in the NFL in pass attempts out of such misdirection plays (according to NFL Matchup on ESPN): New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up 164 play-action passes through week 15, placing the team only behind the Los Angeles Rams (199) and the Philadelphia Eagles (178).
The Patriots are not only using the play-action a lot, they are also quite effective running it. According to ESPN’s statistics, only five offenses in the league average more yards per pass attempt of a fake handoff than New England’s: the Patriots gain 10.2 yards per attempted play-action pass, trailing only the San Francisco 49ers (11.1), Los Angeles Chargers (11.1), Houston Texans (10.6) and Seattle Seahawks (10.3).
This effectiveness has caught the eye. Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, for example, called New England the “best play-action team in the NFL” leading up to the two teams’ week 13 meeting. “A lot of teams run play-action that they don’t really run the runs out of,” Zimmer said. “But their play-action looks exactly like the run, the offensive line does an outstanding job, Brady’s really good with the play action and the receivers do a good job of getting to the spots where the linebackers or the safeties are getting sucked into.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick recently credited both the running game and the passing game for the production when it comes to misdirection plays like the play-action. “When the running game is effective, that helps the play-action passes a lot so probably nothing has helped our passing game more than the running game and vice versa,” Belichick said. “Throwing the ball to some different players or certainly making the plays look the same is tougher on the defense.”
“If you’re running the ball effectively that brings a lot more people to that run action than if you’re not running it effectively,” New England’s head coach continued. So far this season, the Patriots offense has not been perfect and struggled with consistency. Their play-action game, however, has been on point and it would not be a surprise if the team went back to it more moving forward — especially with Josh Gordon no longer a part of the equation.