It can be one of the prettiest plays in football and, when executed properly, can make an offensive coordinator look like a genius. It can make linebackers, safeties and even TV cameramen look foolish.
The play-action pass is an NFL art form. For the Steelers, it’s a lost art.
In 2013, the Steelers used play-action on 11 percent of their passing plays. That was the lowest percentage in the league. The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks used play action on a league-high 35 percent.
Todd Haley, entering his third season as the Steelers offensive coordinator, would like to see that change. Haley would like to see the running game take a big step forward this season. If that happens, it will provide more options for a passing game that did well last season in spite of a lethargic running attack.
“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.”
Receiver Lance Moore knows that better than anyone. He spent the previous nine seasons with in New Orleans, where Saints quarterback Drew Brees perfected the play-action pass.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brees had a league-high 176 dropbacks that used play action. He threw for 1,312 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions on those plays.
“He’s one of the best play-action quarterbacks in the game in a long time,” Moore said. “His ability to sell it and make it look like run and then quickly refocus on the receivers. … He was great at that.”
The Saints were second in passing offense and fourth in total offense last season. They have been one of the most prolific offenses in the league under Brees, setting the NFL record in 2011 for most yards.
“Anytime you have some sort of balance offensively, it’s going to be a lot easier to do things as a play-caller,” Moore said. “As a player on the field, if you can keep the defense off-balance, not really knowing if you’re going to run or hit them with the play-action, the chances of being successful go way up.”
Ben Roethlisberger used play-action effectively in his early years. Not by coincidence, that was when the Steelers were at the top of the league rushing statistics. They ranked 27th in rushing last season, and Roethlisberger’s play-action rating was poor as a result.
Not only did the Steelers seldom use play-action, but they also were mostly unsuccessful when they did. Roethlisberger had only 74 dropbacks with play-action, throwing for 470 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions when he used it.
Roethlisberger threw a lot of touchdowns early in his career off play-action, but they won’t return to the offense until the running game and protection improves.
“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.”
The Steelers ranked 16th in the league in total offense last season and 12th in passing. A more effective running game not only should boost the overall production, but it also would create big-play opportunities through play-action that have been largely absent in recent years.
“It’s something we know we have to be good at,” Moore said. “It’s a weapon you can use and benefit from it if you fine tune it.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter @rayfitt1.