November 4, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (5) prepares to hand the ball off to running back Doug Martin (22) against the Oakland Raiders in the first quarter at Coliseum. The Buccaneers defeated the Raiders 42-32. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Lights, Camera, Play Action: Which NFL Quarterbacks Perform the Best On Play Action Passes, and Where Does Josh Freeman Fit In?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have vastly improved their defense heading into 2013, adding back healthy defensive linemen and bringing in All-Pro talent in the defensive backfield. The hope is that this defense will do a better job keeping the Bucs’ offense competitive and in good situations, rather than forcing Josh Freeman and company to have to air out passes in obvious passing situations. There has been plenty of talk about pressure on The Pewter Plank, both in how Josh Freeman deals with defensive pressure, and how he’ll deal with pressure to perform.

But something that may be overlooked is the ability to run the football more often with an improved defense, and the play action opportunities which a strong running game presents to offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. So how well does Josh Freeman stack up against the rest of the NFL when it comes to play action passing, and how much better was he when faking the run versus on more standard passing plays?

Dec 30, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) throws a pass against the New England Patriots during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

According to Pro Football Focus, Josh Freeman had the 15th best QB rating in the NFL on play action passes, logging a 98 quarterback rating on such plays. He got to this number thanks to completing 57.6% of his passes for 1018 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. This is a vast improvement over his numbers on non-play action passes, where he posted a QB rating of 76.5. The 21.5 increase in his rating on play action passes seems quite impressive, right?

It certainly is, as he’s one of only 10 eligible QBs to improve their QB rating by more than 16 points on play action passes. But Freeman isn’t the most impressive on play action passes in the NFL. That distinction goes to Matt Ryan, who completed almost 70% of his passes on fake runs and racked up a rating of 121.5 on play action. But the player who improved the most on play action throws was Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins, who saw his rating jump 53.5 points on play action throws. Keep this in mind with Miami adding Mike Wallace this season, as Tannehill may be able to find Wallace deep with some play action fakes.

A quick side note: Mark Sanchez was by far the worst quarterback on play action passes, actually seeing a 21 point decrease in his passer rating on fake runs. This is a good sign for the Buccaneers who will likely see Sanchez and his anemic offense week one in New York.

But what makes Freeman’s improvement on play action passes so impressive is the number of throws he attempted on play action plays. 23.4% of Freeman’s throws were from play action in 2012, which is third among QBs who are not running some form of option offense (which has a lot more play action built in). Freeman dropped back with a play action fake 141 times in 2012, and those plays resulted in a huge improvement for the Bucs’ QB.

As we look ahead to 2013, it’s clear that the Buccaneers will want to utilize the threat of Doug Martin as much as possible to bolster the passing game. And since Josh Freeman has demonstrated the ability to thrive on play action passes, the stars seem to be aligning for an improved season for the Bucs’ signal caller. He’ll still need to improve his performance on non-play action throws, as well, but it’s almost a guarantee that we’ll see Freeman using Martin as a decoy to open up the passing game in 2013.


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