Does the lack of Play-Action PASSING, lead to a decrease in RUN success?

Flipping the Run/Play-Action Success Question on it’s head.

Dec 30, 2018; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) hands the ball to Seattle Seahawks running back Chris Carson (32) during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals at CenturyLink Field. Seattle defeated Arizona 27-24. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

A friend of mine asked my opinion as to why the Steelers run game has fallen off the last two years. Knowing last year was most likely due to the loaded boxes (as described in the Football Outsiders Almanac) defenses lined-up with Big Ben, I focused mainly on 2020 vs 2018. I originally figured the same loaded boxes defenses were showing the Steelers in 2019 remained given Big Ben’s frequency throwing (almost exclusively) short passes in 2020. However, when you break down running success in 2020 between loaded and non-loaded boxes volume, or success is not really statistically significant:

7 or less8 or more
2020 att249124
2020 suc35.333.1
2019 att*241154
2019 suc*39.834.4
2018 att24996
2018 suc45.836.5
2017 att272165
2017 suc39.736.4

After combing through various, different scenarios (box size, side of OL, RB v OL in terms of Open field Yards vs Adjusted Line Yards, or ALY) I concluded the rushing decline didn’t have any “Micro issues” that advanced stats could tease out (at least related to box size). I came to the conclusion the change in rushing success has to do with two, MAYBE 3 things:

  1. In aggregate the loss of OL Coach Munchak (2018) is hard not to correlate with the entire OL (and TE) PFF RBLK decrease in grading (not to mention ALY stats across the board) from 2018 to 19/20.
YR.Alejandro VillanuevaMatt FeilerMaurkice PounceyDavid DeCastroChukwuma OkoraforTE McDonald
  1. The success rate between loaded/unloaded boxes from Y2Y didn’t really change, nor did volume of runs into light boxes, the biggest change (see first chart) was the AMOUNT of runs into heavy boxes. We can likely assume those calls SHOULDN’T have been runs, i.e. audibled to a pass. However I can’t pull pass rates by box size, so I should say I can’t prove this as of yet.
  1. This is where it gets interesting. We have plenty of research that shows PA passing is highly efficient, and its success really doesn’t have anything to do with volume/success of the run game (although I know there has been some recent counter research on the topic, with the likes of offenses like TEN/MIN/LAR/CLE who “attach PA concepts tightly with Run concepts”, etc). I should let it be known that I have always taken issue with this “analytics concept” and consider myself a “Running DOES setup play-action truther”. I also think a much better way to determine if running volume/success has an impact on play-action success would be to exclusively study runs and play-actions vs. those particular runs (not a run and play-action catchall). Think Browns, Vikings and Rams type offenses to give you good examples.
  2. Either way, is it possible that the lack of play-action passing (volume, success or both) is tied with run game ineptitude. We all know PIT/Big Ben are historically allergic to PA passes, could that be allowing defenders an extra split second reaction to their run assignments, knowing that “run-action LOOK” is highly likely to result in a run (and not a PA pass)? Or better put, IF we know PA passes are relatively efficient, given the “pause” they present to (especially middle field defenders), before spot dropping/dropping/finding their pass assignment, THAN shouldn’t we also contend that if there is no threat of a PA pass, shouldn’t ILBs, Drop OLBs and Box Ss be able to run towards their run assignments more quickly when there is an offensive run action is presented?

*I fell off the contention that the lack of PA passes is the reason for the PIT run game ineptitude, given the fact that IF this had casual relationship their run game success would have been suffering since the time of Big Ben/lack of PA passes (years ago)…so I am no longer making that MICRO assessment (again I think it’s the loss of the great OL coach, and the quantity of runs going into heavy boxes/not performance of the run game), but ALL OF THIS has led me to this one thought I can’t shake:

(Thinking as a defender), with all the scouting that takes place, not to mention the years of motor memory ingrained in a defender, along with what we KNOW about PA passing, does a LACK of a PA game, lead to a lower relative rushing efficiency?

We have already researched this question, but POSSIBLY backwards:

RankSeasonTeamPA DROPBACK RtRu Points EarnedRu EPARu Positive%
162020Football Team26.35%10.6-7.943.00%
Correl.s between PA Rate and42.47%44.07%47.84%

^ Points earned, EPA and success rate correlate with PA rates (in 2020 at least on a quick search)…BUT that’s the “CAUSAL DIRECTION” of the puzzle we have tried to solve: does running (blanketedly) impact PA efficiency? What I am saying is, to a degree, have we been looking at this backwards…does PA passing impact running?

Anecdotally, as a former player I feel this may have legs (possibly circularly, sure, but still something we have not talked about), picturing myself playing Whip (our Weakside SS/OLB hybrid in my college’s 4-2-5 system), and having my post-snap reads as follows:

  1. High hat/low hat (reading the G/C/G-to-QB triangle as we called it to determine pass/run)
  2. Moving my eyes to the backfield, and
  3. KNOWING from film/team tendendancy breakdown/that week’s practice, that if that team rarely runs PA passes, if I see anything but a QB drop, I am sprinting to my run assignment (keeping outside flipper free, being our contain man, ha)

Like all theories, I could be wrong, but I think this idea at least deserves some investigation, stand by for some help from our friends at Football Outsiders to help us solve this question.

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