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The Bucs don’t have to set up the run in order to run play action successfully

Byron Leftwich’s recent comments have Tampa Bay fans scratching their heads.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers Training Camp Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

One of the hottest debates over the last few years has been whether or not you have to run the ball in order to set up play action. Recent studies (and there are plenty of them) have shown that you don’t have to base play action attempts off of how well or how often you run the ball. But of course, there are those who still think the proper way to dial up play action is if you’re running the ball often and with success.

Byron Leftwich is one of those people and his recent comments back it up.

“I don’t know, to be honest with you,” Leftwich told reporters Thursday when asked why the Bucs don’t run play action more often. “Like I tell you, we do what we feel as though we need to do to win the football game. We’re not trying to do what everybody else [does] or what some other teams do best. We’re trying to do what’s best for our players. We understand how good we are at play-action, but it all comes down to being able to run the ball consistently, week in and week out. If you can do that week in and week out, obviously that always helps your play-action game. Obviously, we can be better at getting more attempts up, but it all starts with the run game. We have to do a better job of running the ball consistently so we can consistently call play-actions. That’s really what it is [and the] thing we worked on while we had this time off. We’ll see. We’ll try to play our best football this month and see where it gets us.”

The question was an accurate one. The Bucs don’t use play action as near as often as other teams, despite being one of the best teams in the league when they do decide to run it. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Bucs have the seventh-fewest play action dropbacks (88) in the NFL, but their average of (0.28) EPA per attempt and 54.4 percent positive play rate is well above the NFL average of (0.1) EPA per attempt and 50.4 percent positive play rate. In fact, the Bucs’ average EPA per attempt is the sixth-best rate in the league.

Leftwich’s response left a lot to be desired. A ton, even. For starters, you never want to start off a response with “I don’t know”, but he then contradicts himself by stating how good the Bucs are at running play action while simultaneously stating that the Bucs “do what we feel as though we need to do to win the football game” and “we’re trying to do what’s best for our players”. Well, if you know you’re good at running play action, wouldn’t including more play action be a viable way to win a football game and wouldn’t it also be what’s best for the players?

But I digress. What this article is about is Leftwich’s ideology that you have to run the ball consistently and/or effectively in order to set up play action. I hyperlinked the past studies that have looked at the NFL as a whole, but for the purpose of examining Leftwich’s comment in direct relation to the Bucs, I decided to see if what he said holds true in 2020.

Before we begin, let’s set some parameters. As I mentioned earlier, the average EPA/att when using play action in the NFL is (0.1) EPA/att and the average positive play percentage is 50.4 percent. The Bucs average (0.28) EPA/att and a 54.4 percent positive play rate when throwing out of play action. The average EPA/rush when running the ball is (-0.04) EPA/rush and the average positive play percentage is 41.2 percent. Teams run the ball an average of 27 times for about 113 yards per game in 2020, as well. The Bucs run the ball an average of 23 times for about 96 yards per game and average (-0.8) EPA/rush and a 34.6% positive play percentage when running the ball.

Tampa Bay has four games in which they eclipsed the average yardage mark of 113 yards per game in the NFL. In those four games, only two of them —the Chargers and Panthers— feature an above-average EPA/att when using play action.

Well, the Bucs are above-average in terms of EPA/att when using play action in five of the other eight games where the Bucs don’t surpass 113 yards per game. In fact, the Bucs average (0.23) EPA/att in the eight games where they don’t surpass 113 rushing yards compared to (0.25) EPA/att in the four games in which they have. They average a 50.3 percent positive play percentage in the eight below-average games compared to a 44.8 percent positive play percentage in the four above-average games, as well.

Tampa Bay’s four games that featured its highest EPA/att in terms of play action also featured two below-average performances in terms of EPA/rush. The Bucs’ four games that featured their lowest EPA/att in terms of play action featured three below-average performances in terms of EPA/rush, so again, there isn’t a stark difference.

That right there is enough surface material to show that you don’t have to have a stellar ground game in order to run play action effectively. A mere (0.02) difference shouldn’t force you to run the ball in non-advantageous situations. It’s all about when, where, and why you call play action. That’s how you determine the effectiveness. Sure, the Bucs only have four games in which they are above-average in rushing yards per game, which is a small sample size, but on the other hand, there is an eight-game sample size that certainly lends interesting insight into this whole situation.

We’ll see how the rest of the season goes, but it’s pretty clear that the Bucs don’t have to run the ball consistently to be good at play action. I mean, their entire season thus far encapsulates this theory. Think about it. The Bucs are at the bottom of the NFL in rush attempts and rush yards per game. They’re also very inconsistent on the ground. Yet they are really good at play action.

It’s something that Leftwich definitely needs to think about, but only time will tell if he has.

*All data and information provided by Sports Info Solutions and Pro Football Reference.