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Trend to watch: Play-action passing on first down

Here’s a look at league-wide percentages of passing plays called on first down over the last five seasons (listed in order from 2016 to 2020): 49.9, 47.1, 50.1, 48.1 and 49.7. Now, here’s the breakdown of play-action rates on first down during that same span: 30.5, 34.9, 35.7, 36.8 and 37.7. While passing on first down has been relatively steady over the last half-decade, the utilization of play-action on first down has increased. The trend makes sense with defenses having to honor both the pass and the run on first down, so spacing would likely be more favorable to the offense. But does the strategy work?

After having my math vetted by two third parties, the answer is that there is a demonstrated correlation to increased scoring. Teams that used play-action on at least 20 percent of first-down plays earned an average of 0.8 more first downs and touchdowns per game than those that did not. Teams that used play-action on at least 20 percent of first downs and also ranked in the top 10 in quarterback, running back and wide receiver units based on win share were the most successful, with 3.2 points added to their score per game compared to the other group. This aligns with the eye test, but even teams without as much top-tier talent saw an increase in points added when they used play-action on first down in 2020.

Teams with at least two units (QB, OL, passing offense, rushing offense) ranking 16th or better in win share all saw at least a 0.7 increase in points added per game when using play-action on first down. I could write a whole white paper here, but the bottom line was there is a correlation between play-action passes on first down and increased offensive success in 2020. Here’s your math jargon for the week: correlation doesn’t imply causation. In other words, I don’t mean to suggest teams should use play-action on every first down in 2021, but rather, this was a driver of success in 2020, especially for teams with the right personnel. Now we’ll be able to see if that trend continues or if defensive schemes adapt enough to lessen its impact in 2021.