Everybody loves play-action. Sucking up defenders with a run fake, and then dropping bombs over the top or into vacated areas in the middle of the field — it’s a trick that’s as old as Paul Brown’s first stint as an offensive coach, and it continues to work. It worked especially well for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year, who saw the largest year-to-year improvement in play-action efficiency in at least five years, per Football Outsiders’ metrics.
The most fascinating team on this chart is probably the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As alluded to in the lead, the Bucs improved their play-action DVOA by a whopping 105.0% from 2014, by far the largest year-over-year jump we've seen since we started writing articles about this topic five years ago. Helpfully, Tampa Bay also increased its play-action usage more than any team from 2014, taking advantage of this huge improvement. Upgrading from Josh McCown to Jameis Winston obviously doesn't hurt, but Winston's top three targets (Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins) were hurt, inconsistent, or both for large stretches in 2015, and an undrafted rookie (Donteea Dye) was frequently the No. 2 or 3 target in the passing game. Tampa Bay's DVOA on normal pass plays improved substantially as well, though by nowhere near the same magnitude
This can easily be explained by the fact that the Bucs had a terrible offensive coordinator the year before, and haven’t really focused on play-action passes since Jon Gruden left. Which is curious, because they’ve consistently had the personnel to do so. Play-action doesn’t even require you to have a good running game — that may help in getting opposing defenses into the box in the first place, but defenders generally read their running keys, which you can simulate with run-action.
The Bucs were also the fourth-most efficient team at play-action, behind Washington, Arizona and Buffalo — and if we exclude scrambles, only Washington was better. That’s a pretty impressive result, especially given the fact that Jameis Winston was a rookie. Somewhat confusing, then, is the fact that the Bucs used play-action on just 19% of plays, good for 16th place. That percentage should be much higher, though we should see an increase in play-action usage if the Bucs manage to get ahead in games a little more often and aren’t forced to play catch-up as much.