The play action pass is such a beautiful play to watch because the moment when it looks like the running play is doomed, suddenly it is revealed that this play is actually a pass, and the ball is sent down field. Play action passes are effective because they are paired with a running play. It is the appearance of the running play to which the defense reacts, which creates the deception to make the pass successful.
This simple pair of complementary plays is part of a family of plays where each one is a variation on an initial, base play. Here the run play is the base play; the play action is the variation. All teams and all coaches employ some families of plays or variations on their base plays. Families of plays are often much bigger than two plays. Take, for example, a basic running play, whether it be a power or dive or iso. The action in the backfield is straight forward. The ball carrier heads directly for the hole and is given the ball on the way. He may or may not have another running back blocking for him. The offensive line can be zone blocking, veer blocking or utilizing another scheme.
Once the defense adjusts to the running play, or if they expect it is coming, the offense can move to another play in the family to achieve success. If, for instance, the defense is bringing its defensive backs up to stop the run, a play action call can be successful. However, if the defense responds by shifting its front seven to the play side before the snap or is pursuing too quickly or recklessly after the snap, a counter can be used. Then there are variations on the variations. The play action pass can be varied to then be a draw. At Florida Steve Spurrier made famous use of run-play action-draw families of plays.
Just as there are families of plays based on runs, there can be families of plays built around passes. The pass may include an out route or a slant. The out route can be varied to an out and up to combat overly aggressive cornerbacks. The slant can be turned into sluggo, a variation where the receiver starts running a slant and then breaks upfield on a fly or vertical pattern. Regardless of the pattern, a pass play can be varied to be a screen to keep the defensive rush from becoming too aggressive, and a draw is a variation as well.
For years, this was the chess match played by offensive and defensive play callers. Success by the offense with one play led to adjustments by the defense, which left the defense exposed to variations of the basic play. As much as it sounds like the offense has a tremendous advantage of being able to say “play this defense, and I’ll call this play”, it’s not that simple.
To begin with the offense must call its play before it sees the defense. Audibles were developed so the offense could change to a different variation of the play or different play altogether. However this requires communication to all of the players and everyone who thought the play was going to be one thing must now understand that it is going to be another.
Enter the packaged play. The packaged play is a play where several of the variations are happening within one play. The quarterback doesn’t have to change the play; he just chooses the part of the play he wants to run based on the defense.
For example, think of a read option out of a shotgun look. On the play side of that play have a wide receiver run a hitch. On the backside have the receiver run a slant. Have the offensive line block for the read option, and you’ve got a packaged play.
Up front, the line blocks for the read option every time. The quarterback can hand the ball to the running back, variation one. He can keep it himself and run it, variation two. He can throw the hitch to the play side, variation three. He can throw the slant to the back side, variation four. Only the quarterback’s play changes. Everyone else blocks, gets the ball or carries out a fake.
The defense is forced to defend all the plays at one time. In a regular play calling sequence the defense can be in the right defense to stop the play called. It is very difficult to stop four plays at once. At a minimum the reaction time of the defense will be slower than normal. The corner back cannot crash on the run because the ball may be thrown. The linebackers cannot fly to the flats because the ball can be run up the middle. Every defender cannot load up on the run because of the pass possibilities. Further if the defense recognizes the play, they are only narrowing “the play” down to the four options. Because it is so difficult to defend, it is becoming increasingly popular.
Look at this basic, packaged play from Clemson against South Carolina State. There is the read option as the first two variations and the hitch by the outside receiver. There may be another option available on the backside, but you cannot tell from this angle.
As the play develops you can see all three options.
Plays with variations and options have existed for years. Passes can be thrown to one of several receivers, and the quarterback can pull the ball down and run. The option has created problems for defenses for generations. Unlike the option, packaged plays have run and pass available every play. Run to the left, run to the right, inside and outside all exist at the same time. The blocking is the same; the look is the same, but the ball movement is very different and offensive success with the plays is currently very high.