Signature Stats: Play Action & Deep Passing

Mike Renner runs through some QB numbers with an eye toward what they do when using play action and when taking deep shots.

| 3 years ago

Signature Stats: Play Action & Deep Passing

2013-WK14-QBsAt PFF we offer a whole host of Quarterback statistics that go beyond the box score.  So many, in fact, that I found it hard to choose just one to focus on. So this week I’ll be exploring play action passing and deep passing from the quarterback position. These are just two of the six quarterback Signature Stat categories that also include Time in Pocket, Passing Under Pressure, Accuracy Percentage, and QB Rating.

Play Action Passing

We’ve only been collecting this data for two years, but so far we’ve seen vastly different philosophies and performances from team to team when it comes to using play action. The table below shows some of the differences and why play action is a weapon that some teams underutilize.

  w/ PA w/o PA
QB Rating 99.2 83.3
YPA 8.6 6.8
Comp% 61.2% 61.3%
Int Rate 2.4% 2.7%
TD Rate 6.1% 3.9%
Usage 21.0% 79.0%

These comparisons make it pretty clear that play action leads to better performance on average. The dramatic difference though is quite surprising. A difference of 1.8 yards per attempt over every pass thrown this season is enormous, especially considering completion percentage and interception rates stay about the same. Only nine out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks (125 drop-back minimum) have their ratings drop when using play action.

It’s often said that you need to have a successful running game to be effective with play action. This isn’t always true, as we’ll see later, but coaches sure seem to believe it. Seven of the Top 10 quarterbacks have running games that are above the league average in YPC while no team in the Bottom 10 is above the league average.

Top 10 play action usage:

# Name Team % PA
1  Russell Wilson SEA 34.3
2  Christian Ponder MIN 33.0
3  Terrelle Pryor OAK 31.5
4  Cam Newton CAR 30.1
5  Robert Griffin III WAS 29.9
6  Nick Foles PHI 29.6
7  Colin Kaepernick SF 28.3
8  Peyton Manning DEN 27.7
9  Chad Henne JAX 27.6
10  Kellen Clemens SL 27.3

Bottom 10 play action usage:

# Name Team % PA
30  Carson Palmer ARZ 15.4
31  Eli Manning NYG 15.3
32  Ryan Tannehill MIA 15.0
33  Joe Flacco BLT 14.1
34  Jake Locker TEN 14.1
35  Matt Ryan ATL 13.8
36  Tony Romo DAL 12.2
37  Philip Rivers SD 11.9
38  Ben Roethlisberger PIT 11.5
39  Ryan Fitzpatrick TEN 10.2


Play Action QB Rating

Here we see that an effective running game isn’t always necessary to flourish with play action. Tony Romo, Ryan Tannehill and Philip Rivers all have made a killing with run action despite having below average running games. It’s uncertain whether they’d be having the same success if they used play action more often, but the league-wide averages suggest it never hurts to have more play action.

Top 10 QB Rating with play action:

# Name Team NFL QB Rating
1  Philip Rivers SD 151.9
2  Nick Foles PHI 134.0
3  Peyton Manning DEN 133.9
4  Russell Wilson SEA 120.9
5  Case Keenum HST 120.3
6  Tony Romo DAL 119.5
7  Ryan Tannehill MIA 118.4
8  Colin Kaepernick SF 113.3
9  Mike Glennon TB 111.7
10  Sam Bradford SL 111.5

If you saw our 2012 play action numbers, one name in the bottom 10 should be jumping off the screen. Robert Griffin III was the play action king his rookie season. The Redskins’ quarterback showed a run fake on an NFL high 39.9% of his drop-backs and averaged 11.8 yards per attempt with a quarterback rating of 116.2. His numbers this year are a shadow of his rookie season’s as his yards per attempt figure has dropped by 4.8 and his quarterback rating by 41.5.

Bottom 10 QB Rating with play action:

# Name Team NFL QB Rating
30  Matt Cassel MIN 83.4
31  Eli Manning NYG 76.2
32  Chad Henne JAX 75.6
33  Robert Griffin III WAS 74.7
34  Ryan Fitzpatrick TEN 74.3
35  Jay Cutler CHI 72.9
36  E.J. Manuel BUF 68.2
37  Kellen Clemens SL 65.0
38  Jake Locker TEN 58.0
39  Geno Smith NYJ 54.0


Deep Passing

We set the baseline at targets aimed at least 20 yards downfield when defining a deep pass attempt. At this distance you’ll almost exclusively see vertical routes (posts, corners, go’s, etc.). Hitches, ins, and outs make up just 8% of the targets 20 yards down the field while variations of the go route make up 51%.

  20+ Under 20
QB Rating 87.8 86.7
YPA 11.8 6.6
Comp% 34.5% 65.0%
Int Rate 6.8% 2.1%
TD Rate 10.9% 3.5%
Usage 11.9% 88.1%

One doesn’t need to see these stats to understand that deep targets are more volatile, but the numbers do a good job of showing the extent. Interception rates and touchdown rates triple while yards per attempt doubles and completion percentage is nearly chopped in half. Surprisingly though with all those variations, quarterback rating is almost unchanged.

While success with deep passes fluctuates wildly, the rate at which quarterbacks throw them are much less deviated than even play action. The lowest rate in the league is a mere 11.2 percentage points behind the highest compared to a difference of 24.1 for play action. Assuming 35 attempts a game, that difference translates to about four throws a game and 63 for a season.

Top 10 Deep Passing attempt percentages:

# Name Team Att. %
1  Nick Foles PHI 17.3
2  Jake Locker TEN 16.4
3  Jay Cutler CHI 15.8
4  Michael Vick PHI 15.6
5  Geno Smith NYJ 15.3
6  Colin Kaepernick SF 15.2
7  Russell Wilson SEA 14.8
8  Andy Dalton CIN 14.5
8  E.J. Manuel BUF 14.5
10  Joe Flacco BLT 14.4

Bottom 10 Deep Passing attempt percentages:

# Name Team Att. %
30  Mike Glennon TB 10.0
31  Ryan Tannehill MIA 10.0
32  Tony Romo DAL 9.8
33  Josh McCown CHI 8.7
34  Chad Henne JAX 8.4
34  Sam Bradford SL 8.4
36  Jason Campbell CLV 7.8
37  Alex D. Smith KC 7.7
38  Matt Schaub HST 6.6
39  Matt Ryan ATL 6.1

Deep Passing Accuracy Percentage

If there has been one aspect of Russell Wilson’s game that stands out above all over his brief NFL career, it’s his deep ball. No one can match the frequency and precision that Wilson has shown on targets over 20 yards the past two seasons. For Wilson’s career he has gone deep on 15.6% of his passes, been accurate on 48.6% of those, and averaged 16.5 yards per attempt.

Top 10 Deep Passing Accuracy Percentages:

# Name Team Att. Comp Acc. %
1  Russell Wilson SEA 45 25 60.0
2  Matt Cassel MIN 15 9 60.0
3  Case Keenum HST 30 12 53.3
4  Aaron Rodgers GB 32 16 53.1
5  Alex D. Smith KC 34 12 52.9
6  Mike Glennon TB 29 12 48.3
7  Kellen Clemens SL 19 6 47.4
8  Nick Foles PHI 34 16 47.1
9  Peyton Manning DEN 58 26 46.6
10  Geno Smith NYJ 50 21 46.0

Bottom 10 Deep Passing Accuracy Percentages:

# Name Team Att. Comp Acc. %
30  Eli Manning NYG 53 14 32.1
31  Terrelle Pryor OAK 25 7 32.0
32  Chad Henne JAX 32 8 31.3
33  E.J. Manuel BUF 36 9 30.6
34  Robert Griffin III WAS 44 11 29.5
35  Joe Flacco BLT 63 14 28.6
36  Cam Newton CAR 49 11 28.6
37  Carson Palmer ARZ 59 16 27.1
38  Jason Campbell CLV 12 3 25.0
39  Jake Locker TEN 30 7 23.3

Maybe Jake Locker should reign in the deep balls a little next season. He’s attempting them at the second highest rate yet he’s accurate on by far the fewest. He’s amazingly almost 40 percentage points behind the leaders in terms of accuracy. That number could very well just be an aberration though as he was accurate on 40.8% in 2012.


Follow Mike on Twitter: @PFF_MikeRenner

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • Scott Humphreys

    What drives me crazy is quarterbacks go to throw to the sidelines deep and throw it 5 yards out of bounds. Russell Wilson keeps it on the field of play and gives his receivers a shot.

  • matt247

    one of your numbers is wrong on alex smith’s deep accuracy

    • Paddy Holland

      the percentages must be adjusted to remove drops as few of them would otherwise be accurate. the chiefs receivers are very proficient at dropping the long balls. i doubt thats what youre pointing out though

  • Ferguson1015

    I’d be interested to see what the sack numbers off of play action would be. I suspect that is a big reason why teams like the Chargers do not use play action all that much. You have to have a quality OL to pull off play action with any consistency.

  • Fan

    Thanks for showing the NFL average for context. It would be helpful if all pages in the Signature Stats section displayed NFL average for each displayed stat. It would also help on the passing stats page in the regular section. Without it, it can be challenging to interpret a stat.
    Keep up the good work.

  • aaronbeach

    P. Manning has 5 more deep completions than any other QB in the league? what’s this noodle arm talk?

    • sir irate

      look at percentage

      • aaronbeach

        he’s decent on percentage – but the fact that he’s throwing deep often and successfully is interesting