I happened upon a Tweet recently posted by Pro Football Focus which purported to show the quarterbacks who most frequently made use of the play action, and the names on the top of the list were not exactly surprising. Colin Kaepernick used play action nearly a third of the time last season.
Cam Newton, the greatest running threat from the quarterback position in the league, also made liberal use of play action, just a click or two shy of 30 percent. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was also comfortably over a quarter of his total snaps with reference to using play action.
As I was looking at the short list of quarterbacks I couldn’t help but think as to how greatly this must contrast to how the Pittsburgh Steelers use their quarterbacks, with Ben Roethlisberger in particular, for reasons that I never entirely understood, so I went about reviewing our game charts to see how frequently the Steelers utilize play action themselves.
Out of a total of 752 plays, including all completed or incomplete pass attempts, interceptions, sacks, and scrambles, the Steelers utilized play action during the 2015 season just 70 times, or comfortably less than 10 percent of the time. More specifically, the Steelers used play action just 9.3 percent of the time, or more than three times less frequently than Newton.
On the plays on which the Steelers utilized play action, however, they averaged 8.5 net yards of offense. On the plays on which they did not utilize play action, they averaged 7.2 net yards per play. The gross yardage tally was somewhat closer, 7.5 yards per play to 7.1 yards per play, but clearly, the usage of play action, with an admittedly smaller sample size, provided a boost.
The plays on which the Steelers used play action produced four sacks and two interceptions, but it also produced two touchdowns, both of them to Darrius Heyward-Bey, one of them a 35-yard against the 49ers in the second game of the season.
It has never seemed to make a great deal of sense to me why the Steelers to not make better use of play action. I have sensed for a number of years now that they have used it less and less frequently, and certainly well below the league average. It may be that Todd Haley does not prefer to use it very frequently.
Given the sort of running game that they have behind them between Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, however, and the fact that both of them are more than capable of catching a pass and breaking a tackle or two, it would seem wise for the Steelers to use play action more often. Not that I expect that to change this season. unsurprisingly, Mike Vick was most apt to using play action, doing so 21 times.