This season, we discussed the Green Bay Packers' startlingly effective play-action game, one that succeeds even as the Packers rank among the NFL's bottom third in rushing production. Now let's take a look at an even more extreme example: The Detroit Lions.
The Lions rank No. 24 overall with an average of 95.8 yards rushing per game, a spot boosted by Jahvid Best's 88-yard scoring run last Monday night. (Without that run, the Lions would rank No. 30 out of 32 teams.) The Lions, however, have done a decent job maintaining their play-calling balance despite their low production, ranking No. 20 with 121 rushing attempts this season and putting themselves in a credible position to employ play-action in select spots.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown 30 play-action passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's the 12th-fewest in the NFL, but Stafford has completed 24 of them for an NFL-high 80 percent completion rate. Three of his 13 touchdowns have come on play-action, and he has the highest passer rating (150.4) and Total Quarterback Rating (97.5) on play-action passes in the league.
As you know, I'm always amazed when teams can pull off play-action without a threatening running game. One of the Lions' secrets is to employ play-action out of their well-used shotgun formation. Another is, quite simply, to pick their spots well.
An example of the latter came early in the third quarter Monday night, when the Lions capitalized on the confusion following Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher's 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. The penalty had added 15 yards to tight end Tony Scheffler's 12-yard reception, moving the ball from the Bears' 45-yard line to their 18.
The Lions went to a no-huddle offense, putting the Bears' defense on their heels to begin with, and Stafford took a rare snap from underneath center. He faked a handoff to Best, turned to throw and found tight end Brandon Pettigrew behind Urlacher and linebacker Lance Briggs for an easy touchdown. At the moment, Best had carried only four times for 13 yards in the game. But both Urlacher and Briggs bit on the fake, taking an initial step toward the line of scrimmage before retreating into coverage.
By Lions standards, the play was extraordinarily unique. Stafford has thrown only 23 of his 187 passes this season (12.2 percent) following a snap from under center. (The rest have been from the shotgun.) And as we've already noted, the Pettigrew score was one of only 30 play-action passes (16 percent) this season.
Faced with a no-huddle, a rare play-action and an even more rare snap under center, the Bears predictably were several steps behind. Advantage, Lions.