Does Play-Action Passing work better vs. Zone Defense?

Jon Gruden was quoted earlier this season stating that “Play-Action passing doesn’t work vs. man coverage”. This was shortly before all the racial/homophobic statements that came out of his mouth were unearthed, but after some of the “quotable Gruden-isms” we refer to often, like “Spider 2 Y Banana”. And besides him saying it earlier in the year, and frankly ignoring the context (he wasn’t saying it DOESN’T work vs. man, just that it works better vs zone), it turns out he has been quoted with this assertion a few times. I even found an article “debunking his theory”, written by Tyler Green, back in 2018 titled “Jon Gruden doesn’t think play-action vs. man coverage is effective, numbers suggest otherwise”. Well, for as much as you may hate the guy, whether it be his dumbfounded tactics, or the terrible things he says about certain races/orientations, it turns out he may be right (and Tyler wrong) on this one.

In hopes of not turning this into “Tyler bashing”, all I will say is, Tyler was using “traditional stats” in his research, like yards/play and QB rating. We are going to take a look at more advanced metrics, thanks to our friends at Sports Info Solutions, and try to come up with a more objective answer to “Does Play-Action (PA) Passing work better vs. Zone Defense”.

Before diving into the data, let’s provide some “subjective background” for where this thought comes from, as we like to do in framing these arguments. That is, when coaches/talking heads provide these “tactical nuggets” they don’t come from out of nowhere, and as much as we think they are simply based on “old school” coaches relying on gut/intuition, there is usually some version of fact coaches/talking heads are relying on to draw this conclusion. And frankly, as with many “analytics-folk debunk common football idioms talk”, this one is seeded in basic logic when you think about it: 

  1. We know play-action passes are more efficient than drop back passes.
  2. The “logical/yet subjective” reason for this is, particularly for players that have BOTH run and pass responsibilities (players around the tackle box, like LBs and Box Ss) is that reading “run” or “pass” based on a certain key (when a run fake is given), gives the route runner an extra split second to find a window/create separation between he and the LB/S trying to react FROM a run fit, TO his pass responsibility
  3. Now, here is where the specific argument comes into play: in zone defenses (or at least traditional, drop zones/non-match responsibilities), those players likely have their eyes in the backfield reacting to the QBs motions (i.e. a handoff motion), whereas in TRUE man coverage, that same player is more likely to be reading and reacting to a specific WR/TE/RBs movements, HENCE a play fake will THEORETICALLY, not impact a “man defender” AS much as a “zone defender”.

As always, the best way to answer a question like this is to dive into the data, and what we looked at was 

  • ONLY play-action (PA) passes
  • Since 2017
  • And broke down the data by a few key advanced metrics

Here is how things shaped up:

AttPoints EarnedPE Per PlayBoom RateBust RateNet Boom/BustPositive Play %
% Better vs Zone16.77%-3.62%-16.50%6.76%7.58%

*Table Explained

  • Att: PA Pass Attempts
  • Points Earned: Represents SIS’ proprietary metric that attaches point value, tied to the expectation of winning a football game to an individual play
  • PE Per Play: Points Earned/Play
  • Boom Rate: How frequently an explosive pass occurred
  • Bust Rate: How frequently a negative pass (less than -1 EPA) occurred
  • Net Boom/Bust: The difference between Boom and Bust rates
  • Positive Play %: How often a play resulted in positive expected points

The first and foremost item to consider: PA Passes vs. Zone resulted in 17% more PE/play. That’s the headline, and frankly the end to Tyler’s argument. What’s interesting when you dig a bit deeper is the “Boom Rate” is marginally higher for PA passes against Man, yet the “Bust Rate” is considerably higher. This is likely the ultimate answer to, “IF PA Passes are more efficient vs. zone defense, why is that”: because they are less likely to bust in Zone vs Man coverage. 

A busted pass play (mind you one with -1 EPA or more), by definition, is one likely to include a sack, fumble or interception. And since that relative rate is less vs. zone coverage than man (almost 17% less), it seems “safer” to run your PA Passes vs. zone, than vs man. This is likely due to the fact that the relative value of getting a targeted DB/LB to “bite” on a “run fake” is less likely when he is focused on his man-to-man responsibility, and either has a higher likelihood of picking the pass off, or (more likely) the coverage to be too tight/”ignorant” to the run fake, that the QB has to hold the ball, increasing the likelihood of getting sacked/throwing a risky pass. This is what an astute person would say…but guess what:

When you filter out sacks here is how the chart works out:

Excluding Sacks
AttPoints EarnedPE Per PlayBoom RateBust RateNet Boom/BustPositive Play %
% Better vs Zone14.77%-3.24%-24.44%3.45%7.72%

When you exclude sacks the “zone defense bump” PA passing gets, goes relatively down. Meaning, it’s not sacks that are impacting this difference, so it must be the DBs coverage.

Putting it simply:

  1. The data shows that PA Passing is more effective vs. Zone Defense
  2. When holding the negative impact of sacks on a QB constant, not much changes between PA passes vs man or zone, except the BUST rates tighten up.lending to the belief that it’s the coverage (not pass rush) impact that’s driving the relative success of PA passing vs zone (vs. man).

All of this leads us to conclude, Play-Action passing is more efficient vs zone defenses, and the reasoning is sound: Cover guys aren’t as concerned with run fakes when their read is a pass catcher vs the backfield, leading to a relative uptick in negative offensive plays when using PA vs. man-to-man coverage.

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