It’s something the Steelers offense has been missing for a long time. For at least the last two seasons, the Steelers have run the least amount of play-action passes of any team in the NFL. With only 12% of their pass plays being on play action in 2018 and 11% in 2017, the Steelers are way below the league average of 24%.
Enter Mason Rudolph.
Yes, it is a shame Ben Roethlisberger has been lost for the 2019 season. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger is a Hall of Famer. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger had certain ways he liked to do things and those things were used extensively. No, it does not mean the Steelers must continue to do things in this way.
I don’t want anyone to think not having Ben Roethlisberger is a good thing for the Steelers franchise. Even at the age of 37, Ben is a two-times Super Bowl champion and a future Hall of Famer. But Roethlisberger can’t do everything, and the things that Ben did not like to do might be what this team needs in order to succeed.
When it comes to play-action passes, they can be run either out of shotgun or from under center. While they are both considered “play action,” their execution and effect on the defense can be quite different. When using play action in shotgun, many times it is used as a “run-pass option” (RPO) where the quarterback reads the defense and decides if he’s going to hand the ball off or pull it back in order to throw a quick pass. In these situations the ball is usually front an center for all to see while the deception lies in the decision made by the quarterback. By presenting the ball to the running back, the quarterback is essentially reading the defense in an attempt for them to be wrong with whatever decision they make. If they sell out on the run, the quarterback keeps the ball and tries to exploit the defense with a pass. If the defense plays the pass, the running back keeps the ball and gets what he can get. While not all play-action passes out of shotgun are RPO’s, the trend in the NFL has brought it more into the game each year.
As for play-action passes from snaps taken under center, they are a completely different thing. In this scenario, the quarterback generally turns his back to the line of scrimmage and fakes a hand off to the running back. If done properly, the running back covers where the ball would be as the quarterback hides it from the defenders. This type of play action is based on the defense not being able to see the ball. Whether the defenders come up to play the run or freeze due to uncertainty, it could cause just enough of an opening for the completion. This particular play is based solely on deception and not making the defense guess wrong. The quarterback is going to look to pass the ball even if the defense was not fooled and were prepared for it.
When it comes to exploiting the defense, deception and uncertainty are the best way to open things up. If the defense knows what a team is going to run, it’s much easier for them to stop it. In the first two weeks of the NFL season, the Steelers have not taken advantage of disguising their intentions when it comes to personnel and formations.
A prime example is Rothlisberger‘s desire to constantly throw the ball out of shotgun formation. In the first half of the Week 2 game against the Seattle Seahawks, Ben Roethlisberger attempted 15 passes, only one of which came from lining up under center. Bottom line, Roethlisberger just isn’t as comfortable in the passing game unless he’s in shotgun.
In the second half of the Seattle game, Mason Rudolph attempted 19 passes, three of which were under center. Now I know it doesn’t seem like that much of a difference, but in seven plays under center, Ben Roethlisberger threw only one pass while in exact same number of plays under center, Mason Rudolph threw three times out of seven. Throw in the under center two-point conversion attempt and the run-pass ratio for Rudolph is 50-50.
Although a play action pass can work in shotgun, I find it to be more effective from under center if done effectively and in the proper proportion. The perfect example of this is the 3-yard touchdown pass to Vance McDonald on the Steelers last offensive play of the game in Week 2.
The way Rudolph faked the ball to the running back with his back to the line of scrimmage is something Steelers fans have not seen from the quarterback in sometime. As you can see, Rudolph was then able to locate a wide-open Vance McDonald for the touchdown as the play-action caused the linebackers to step up and crowd the line of scrimmage. The void left in the middle of the field is what allowed for the easy completion.
Yes, the Steelers have now put this play on tape for others to see. But they also did the same thing with their “flea flicker” play. So the exact same play might not catch teams off guard, the play-action pass has to be something teams account for. Not only may it help free up receivers in the passing game, but if the defense is playing pass even on the fake hand off, it could also help open up the running game when the Steelers do hand off the ball.
Do I expect the Steelers to come out and run play action 40% of the time? No. But it would be nice to see it higher than the 11% from 2018. And if Week 2 was any indication, Mason Rudolph seems willing and able to run whatever type of play to get the job done. So passing from under center formations, particularly play-action passes, is one more tool the Steelers now have which they were reluctant to use a week ago.