Maybe you’ve heard a game-day announcer fawn over the way Peyton Manning sold a play-action fake or marvel at how Matt Ryan tricked the entire defense into thinking — incorrectly — the Falcons were going to run the ball.
It turns out they were watching the wrong thing. The quarterback and running back dynamic might seem like the lead actors when it comes to play-action fakes, but it’s the surrounding cast that truly makes the deception work.
“I would say the majority of it is done by the offensive line,” quarterback Brian Hoyer said last week. “When the offensive line comes off like it’s a run, you can see times where we watch the film and the linebackers are reacting to them. They’re not even looking at us. They’re looking at the offensive line’s intention, the fullback, the tight end. We’ve just got to do the end part of it.”
Kyle Shanahan’s offense is built on being able to run or pass out of the same alignments and the same personnel groups. Which makes the play-action pivotal to the 49ers’ success this year.
They have to be able to sell it like a magician sells his act, and it was a major focus of the team’s spring practices.
One of the keys, according to the players paid to sniff out this sort of sleight of hand, is the offensive line’s helmets. If the helmets are held high before the ball is snapped, it signals the linemen are poised to drop back in their stances and pass protect. If they’re lower, it indicates the linemen are eager to get leverage on their opponents for an upcoming running play.
A good offense doesn’t telegraph its intent.
“It’s been extremely hard to get tells,” strong safety Eric Reid said of recent practices. “As a defense you’re always looking for keys, looking for someone to give something away. And it just doesn’t happen. You can’t get a read on anything. They make their pass plays and their run plays look exactly the same.”
Reid, who is playing closer to the line of scrimmage this year and is a quasi-linebacker, said he bit on a few fakes early in the spring but had become more comfortable and patient in the new defense by the end of the sessions.
Meanwhile, the 49ers’ inside linebackers, NaVorro Bowman and Malcolm Smith, are a pair of multi-year veterans who aren’t easily fooled. That’s created an intense cat-and-mouse dynamic in practice that has forced the offense to sharpen its play-action deceit even more.
“I would say of all of the defenses that we are going to go against, defenses that play the scheme that our defense plays are going to be the toughest guys to get in play action because the linebackers are very disciplined,” Hoyer said. “Malcolm has played in this system before. He’s really hard to get in play action, which has been good for us. … It’s been a good battle back and forth. We have gotten some, they have dropped underneath some where we have had to check it down. It’s been a good test for both sides.”
At least in the practices that reporters have observed, Smith and Bowman seemed to have the upper hand. The two linebackers tipped, intercepted and otherwise mucked up a number of pass plays, especially during red-zone sequences.
But in one of the final practices, the offense struck back with a deep, touchdown bomb to speedy receiver Marquise Goodwin that followed a play-action fake.
Hoyer said connecting on that type of play is invaluable because, with the defense worried about deep passes, it makes other plays — run calls, shorter pass plays — easier to execute.
“A lot of the times our defense is playing three-deep (coverage), so there’s a guy in the middle of the field so you can’t throw deep,” he said. “We got them in the right look and we capitalized on it. I think that’s the major thing. But what it does show our defense — and hopefully when we get to the season, other defenses — is that we have a guy who can take the top off the defense.”
Besides, Hoyer said, “Chicks dig the long ball. Anytime you throw a deep ball, everybody gets pumped up.”