The Super Bowl winning Seattle Seahawks employed a simple philosophy on offense in 2013. Led by Marshawn Lynch, they pounded the ball on the ground over and over again on their way to 2188 yards, good for fourth best in the NFL.
Proving the old cliche true, they ran to set up the pass. The Seahawks used play-action on 35% of their passes, the highest in the league. By week 16, Russel Wilson had thrown for half of his 24 touchdowns off of play-action and over a third of his 3,000 yards. On play-action throws his passer rating went up to 120.3 from 105.0 and his yards per attempt average increased from 8 to 10.
Although Seattle only finished 18th in total offensive output, it's easy to connect the dots. A commitment to a strong running game opens up big play opportunities for the quaterback off of play-action. A formula which, in combination with a strong defense, won the Seahawks the Super Bowl.
In contrast, the Steelers used play-action on only 11% of their passes, the lowest in the league. Not only did they rarely employ the play-action pass, the results were poor when they did. On the 74 dropbacks quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had using play-action he threw for three touchdowns and four interceptions, gaining 470 yards.
Although the Steelers passing offense ranked 12th in the league in 2013, the rushing offense ranked 27th, a good explanation for why play-action was utilised so little, and why it was largely unsuccessful when it was.
Per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, offensive coordinator Todd Hayley wants the Steelers running game to take a big step forward in 2014, knowing it will have a huge knock on effect in the passing game.
"Running the football, whether we’re huddling or no-huddling, is something we’ll do better, a lot better," Haley said. "That will only help what we’ll be able to do. I believe we’ll be able to throw it with anybody."
"When you can throw it as well as we did with the run game not exactly where we wanted it tells you we have a chance to be good. When you’re running the football it makes throwing a heck of a lot easier."
Roethlisberger enjoyed some success early in his career using play-action, and he understands that, like in all aspects of football, it is a total team effort.
"We have to run the ball well and protect," Roethlisberger said. "Play-actions are usually deep plays down the field, so the line has to hold up for a couple of seconds and maybe longer. When you can run the ball, establish that and then you get guys who can hold up in the blocking, then you can take advantage of big plays down the field. We have the weapons to do it. We just have to be able to do it."
There has been a lot of emphasis placed on revitalising the running game this off-season. With the addition of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer, along with the continued progression of second year running back Le'veon Bell, there is a good deal of legitimate optimism in the Steelers backfield that they can drastically improve upon their 27th place last season.
If that is the case expect to see not only more play-action passing, but the Steelers passing offense to improve from 12th as well.