First down key to Packers play-action game

The Green Bay Packers haven’t missed a beat this season as defending champs, winning their first six games by over 10 points per game. They are the fourth defending Super Bowl champions to be the NFL’s final unbeaten team, joining the 1998 Denver Broncos, 1990 San Francisco 49ers and 1986 Chicago Bears.

The Packers have dominated their opponents on the scoreboard despite averaging just 3.8 yards per rush, ranked 27th in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers leads a potent passing attack, and one of his most dangerous weapons is the play-action fake.

The Packers are leading the league in play-action touchdowns and are second in yards per play-action attempt. They are also averaging nearly twice as many dropbacks per game with a play fake this season compared to each of the last two years.

Aaron Rodgers Play Action Passing
NFL Ranks, 2011 Season

Their success with play-action is somewhat surprising given their the lack of a threat in the backfield. How can a team that struggles to run be so successful on plays with run fakes?

Having Aaron Rodgers, who leads the NFL in Total QBR this season (85.6), is a good start. But the Packers have also been doing a good job of exploiting their own predictability on offense.

It all starts on first down for the Packers’ play-action game. Green Bay has run on 43.9 percent of its first downs, its highest rate on any down. Knowing opposing defenses are more likely to stop the run on first down, Mike McCarthy has called 47 of the Packers’ 67 play-action attempts here.

Tim LincecumRodgersOverall, the bulk of their play-action attempts have come with at least two skill players in the backfield with Rodgers, formations in which the Packers call passes 38.2 percent of the time.

Rodgers is averaging a league-best 15.3 yards per attempt and has six play-action touchdowns in backfield formations this season, three more than the next-highest quarterback.