Football Glossary: Play-Action Pass

Super Bowl LII - New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles
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A play-action pass is misdirection play used by the offense in football. During a play-action pass, the quarterback of the team on offense receives the snap from the center and fakes the beginning of a running play, as if he is going to hand the ball off to the running back stationed behind him in the formation, but then actually executes a passing play. The quarterback pretends to physically hand the ball off to the running back, while often tucking the ball under the opposite arm and the running back acts as though he has received the ball via handoff and runs forward as though he has the ball. The quarterback will then hesitate for a moment before looking downfield for a receiver and throwing the ball. The receivers also sell the play, initially pretending to block before going out on their routes.

The play is designed to confuse the defense and trick them into guarding against the run, which will hopefully allow for receivers to be open downfield. When guarding against a running play, defenses often use more defenders in the box, rather than in the secondary. Thus, with a majority of the defense paying attention to the running back, the receivers will have an easier time getting open.

Generally, a team will have a much more effective play-action attack game if they are consistently gaining yards on regular running plays. A defense is more likely to overact to a run fake if the offensive team has been having success running the ball. Play-action passes are also often extremely effective against overly-aggressive defenses, or defenses that blitz often, as such teams are more likely to pursue the fake running play immediately after the ball is snapped.

The quarterback can also do the opposite of a traditional play-action pass, and fake a pass before quickly handing the ball off to the running back behind him in a delayed handoff. This is called a draw play.

Elements of a Play-Action Pass:

  • The quarterback takes the snap and drops back to hand off to the running back.
  • The running back gets ready to take the handoff.
  • The quarterback quickly pulls the ball back from the handoff position, trying to hide it from the defense. He then looks down-field for an open receiver.
  • The running back continues to move up field as if he has the ball in his hands.
  • The offensive line comes off the ball to run block​ but goes into pass protection soon afterward.
  • The receivers "sell" the running play by appearing to block at first, then break off into their routes.

Other Names:

The play-action pass is also occasionally referred to as a play fake, as simply as play-action. The bootleg play in which the quarterback runs with the ball behind the line of scrimmage usually starts off of play-action.


On a play-action pass, the quarterback hopes to fake the defenders into thinking the offense is going to run the ball. By doing so, he accomplishes two things. He slows down the pass rush of the defense and he forces the defensive backs to make a decision between covering their assigned receiver or coming up to help stop the run.