TAMPA FL - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Josh Freeman #5 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hands the ball off against the Cleveland Browns during the game at Raymond James Stadium on September 12 2010 in Tampa Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to build their new offense around two tenets: running the ball, and play-action passing. Play-action is a powerful weapon in the passing game: it forces opposing defenses to account for the run, opening up passing lane by making defenders take false steps. But, according to Football Outsiders, were terrible at play-action passes: the Bucs were the second-least efficient team on play-action passes, per their numbers. That's despite a respectable 7.2 yards per attempt on play-action passes, which was higher than the Bucs' yards per attempt on normal passes: 5.7. That difference is undoubtedly explained by interceptions, fumbles and long, but still unsuccessful, passes (such as a 10-yard pass on third-and-15). Overall, the Bucs' had the fourth-biggest negative difference between their regular passing efficiency, and their play-action passing efficiency.
Given that lack of success it should be no surprise that the Bucs only used play-action on 15% of their passes, which ranks 25th in the NFL. But how can we explain the Bucs' struggles on play-action? An easy explanation would be to point to the Bucs' lack of a running game, but that actually doesn't have a huge impact on play-action success: defenders react to run keys, and they won't drop back into coverage if their keys tell them to play the run. In fact, that's why it's always wise to pull a guard on play-action. The Bucs only ran play-action passes sparingly in 2011, although there's a reason for that: pulling a guard leaves your pass protection vulnerable, and that pass protection wasn't terrific for Tampa Bay in the first place. It's also easy to support anecdotally: the best play-action teams included the New Orleans Saints, the Green Bay Packers, the New England Patriots and the Detroit Lions according to Football Outsiders - teams that didn't exactly run the ball much. Running efficiency or frequency isn't all that important. Instead, the ability to make a play-action pass look like a run is - especially when it comes to the offensive line. That's why zone-blocking teams are often very good at play-action: it's much easier to keep sound pass protection rules while making it look like a zone run than it is while making it look like a power run.
Another explanation could be the design of passes, or quite simply Josh Freeman. The design of the passes is an easy explanation. While I don't have the numbers on this, it seemed that Kellen Winslow was very often targeted on play-action passes, and Winslow struggled to create separation all season long, while Freeman struggled to get the ball to him. Numerous interceptions were thrown Winslow's way. Another explanation is the "jump ball" phenomenon: play-action passes are often deep, shot plays and the Bucs' receivers failed to gain separation, forcing Freeman to throw up jump balls. Unlike the 2010 season, the Bucs' receivers failed to win any jump ball situation in 2011.
Finally, there's the possibility that it's all Freeman's fault. Play-action passes force a quarterback to turn his back to the defense as he fakes handing off the ball. That means a quarterback has less time to survey the defense after the snap, which forces him to make quick decisions based on relatively little information. Given Freeman's overall struggles with decision-making in 2011, that could easily have represented a problem for the third-year quarterback.
Regardless of the reasons for the play-action struggles, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers must find a way to fix these problems if they want to build their passing game around play-action. Can they, though? New offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan comes from the New York Giants, and that team was the third-worst team at play-action passing per Football Outsiders' numbers, despite having a very good quarterback under center. The Giants had the biggest drop from their regular passing efficiency, to their play-action passing efficiency. Of course, Sullivan also noted that he won't be running the Giants' offense. That makes sense given the Bucs' supposed emphasis on running the ball: the Giants ran the ball on just 39% of all plays, and used play-action on just 14%.