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Since Peyton Manning has come into the league the Indianapolis Colts have made a living off of play action passes. Manning uses the play fake better than anyone else to strategically move the linebackers out of position and create holes in the defense to throw to. Tight end Dallas Clark benefits the most from the run game and play fakes. The play action is so effective because the run play and the pass predicated off of the same play are almost indistinguishable from the snap until the time Manning pulls the ball back to throw.

Here is a play action series the Colts use all the time. The Colts love to run an inside read play. This means the O-line will kick out the defensive ends, and combo block the defensive tackles and linebackers, the back gets the hand off, finds the hole, then makes a cut and gets up field.

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The second play is the play action pass off of the zone read play; notice how similar the blocking assignments look. This is a max protection scheme where the tight end and back stay in to block. When the ball is snapped the defense believes they are simply seeing the same zone read play out of a flipped formation. The linebackers read this and attack the line of scrimmage. When Manning pulls the ball back the linebacker has vacated his zone in the standard cover 2 defense. The safeties will both go with the outside receivers because they have deep coverage responsibilities, as soon as Manning gets the ball ready and Dallas Clark (the slot receiver on the left side) clears the linebacker, Manning will hit him right in the seem of the coverage (red circle), typically resulting in a big gain.

The Colts also like to use the play action in goal line or short yardage situations because the defense anticipates, and sets up to stop, the run. Below is a goal line play the Colts use when Manning sees the defense committing to the run.

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Here the linebackers and strong safety are going to attack the run and vacate their pass responsibilities. Anticipating this, the Colts had called a play action in the huddle. The Colts are only going to send 2 receivers into routes on this play and leave the rest to block because the play action takes a little longer to develop, and the defense has 11 players attacking the line of scrimmage. Clark (the tight end) is going to release like he is trying to block the linebacker, as the linebacker fights past him and toward the line Clark will get to the back of the end zone, behind everyone else, and the work to the outside, away from the defenders.

The play action pass can be an outstanding offensive tool. If the run game is going well holes in the secondary will be greatly exaggerated and will be easy for the offense to exploit. A decent run game, and good play action game, will give the defense a catch-22 that can be almost impossible to handle.

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Adrian Peterson made one of the smoothest transitions to the NFL of any running back in recent memory. He immediately stepped into the league, and rushed for 1,341 yards. He also set the single game rushing record (296 yards) against one of the leagues best defenses, the San Diego Chargers with Shawn Merriman. He was able to do this so easily because he had already learned the skill that keeps most rookie running backs from thriving immediately, patience. Patience is not standing in the backfield until the play develops, it is the ability to figure out, before the play, how the play may develop and then, go through a block reading progression to decide which hole to cut through. Here is a play the Vikings used in 2007 against San Diego, it resulted in a big gain for Peterson (but on that day, most of his runs were big gains):

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This is a common NFL play. It is an all reach stretch read play from a single back formation. Basically, the entire line is going to try and reach the man to their left. The key to run blocking is giving the line easy angles on the defenders, hard angles need to have options to make them easier for the linemen. The hardest reach blocks will be the tight end trying to reach the outside linebacker, and the left tackle trying to get turned on the defensive end. Therefore, these lineman are given a decision to make. They will take their two steps outside and if they are still inside their man and cannot get the reach block, they simply turn their butts inside and drive their men to the sideline. This gives them a great advantage, they simply take the defender wherever the defender wants to go. As soon as the butts turn Peterson can go through his block read progression.

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Here is the play when Peterson makes his cut. The blocks in the blue circles are his first priority reads. If the tight end and tackle can reach the defenders then Peterson will stretch to the sideline, but if the defenders are aggressively pursuing up field, as in this play, Peterson will cut inside his blocks, which are now effectively kick out blocks. As soon as Peterson makes this decision his eyes go inside to the blocks in the green circles. These reach blocks are easier because they have more effective angles (down field, not just straight down the line). The left guard is going to make sure that the defensive tackle lined up over him does not cross his face, then the guard will try to get to the linebacker. By making sure the defensive tackle doesn’t cross his face (forcing the tackle to go behind him) the defensive tackle has run himself out of the play, the Vikings bet that Peterson can outrun a defensive tackle when given a head start. The center is going to get to the second level and decide which linebacker is the biggest threat. Here the backside linebacker came up field first and then started to pursue, allowing the right tackle to tie him up. So, the center will read this and help with a double team on the play side linebacker. Once Peterson cuts through the hole he is in a foot race with the safety, make the safety miss and it is a touchdown (the safety ended up catching him 20+ yards down the field).

Peterson perfected this ability to read blocks by running a similar offense at Oklahoma. Here is a closely related play that Peterson scored on while at Oklahoma:

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This is an I formation with two tight ends left (after the motion) off tackle lead. This play has a couple of combination blocks that Peterson will have to read. The key block here is both of the tight ends on the defensive end. The end does not have contain responsibilities, the outside linebacker will have that responsibility, so the end is a little more unpredictable. If the offense is lucky enough for the defensive end to stunt inside this will be a touchdown. The tight end off the ball will hit the defensive end until the tight end on the ball can turn his butt to the sideline, once this block is locked the outside tight end will come off the block and look for the inside linebacker on the play side.  The tackle and guard will be playing the same game, they are responsible for the defensive tackle and weak side inside linebacker. The center and weak side guard will be doing a cross block, once again because the guard will have a flatter angle and a better chance at cutting off the weak side linebacker. He does this because if the strong side linebacker hesitates and the left tackle thinks he can make it, the left tackle will go after the strong side linebacker since he is a bigger threat to the play. This gives the offense a double team on the biggest obstacle to this play. Finally, the fun block here is the fullback kicking out the outside linebacker. This will be an easy, fun block because the outside linebacker has contain responsibilities so he is going to move up field unblocked. As soon as he crosses the line he will get met by the fullback going full speed, this is an easy angle for the fullback.

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Here is the read progression once again for Peterson. Here he only going to have one initial block to read The fullback will have the outer most defender. Once the fullback hits the defender and makes it obvious that he will kick out the defender Peterson cuts up and starts reading his secondary progression. When Peterson sees that both of these blocks have successfully sealed their defenders to the inside he makes a break through the hole and to the sideline, once again in a foot race with the safety (since it is college, Peterson easily outruns the safety).

Peterson’s  above average acceleration ability gave him a tool to be more successful, sooner, than most backs. However, backs come into the league every year with great acceleration. Peterson’s ability to go through block read progressions made his transition to the NFL much smoother than most back’s.

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Peyton Manning is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL today. When the offense is clicking on all cylinders Manning is able to put up great numbers and seemingly put together scoring drives at will. Manning’s ability to read defenses pre-snap and change the play accordingly is a big part of his success and the part that usually gets him the most attention. However he does two other things that are fairly simple fundamentals, but he uses them very effectively.

Hard Count

A quarterback’s hard count can be a great weapon at any level of play. The quarterback can use the hard count in two ways. The first and most common use of the hard count is to try and either draw the defensive line offside or to help negate a pass rush by keeping the defensive line guessing as to when the ball will be snapped. The second way that Peyton Manning uses the hard count is to reveal defensive assignments. If you watch Manning on any Sunday you will see him give a hard, convincing “hutt hutt,” watch his eyes as he does this. He keeps his eyes glued to the linebackers and defensive line. Many times his hard count will cause a linebacker to fall a few steps forward revealing his intentions to blitz. Manning then steps back and makes adjustments to his offensive line’s blocking scheme or he makes a hot route call to a tight end or receiver to fill the open area. Manning knows that the linebacker that has just revealed his assignment has to decide to either continue with the blitz, despite the offensive adjustment, or he can call off his own blitz. The fact is if the linebacker decides at the last moment not to blitz the rest of the defense has to adjust their assignments to account for this change, this will typically cause a bit of confusion in the defensive backfield and Manning is usually able to take advantage.

Play Action

Play action passes are a staple of the Colt’s offense, but every team in the league uses play action, why are Manning’s play fakes so much more effective? Two reasons, the first is, unlike many quarterbacks, Manning puts the ball out on the play fake, not just an empty hand. This keeps a linebacker from seeing an empty fake hand and dropping into coverage. But more importantly, as soon as Manning pulls the ball back from the play fake he snaps his head around and immediately sets his eyes on the linebackers to see which players fell for the fake and find the open spot. Then he uses a hop step to get his feet set, thus allowing him to throw an accurate and effective ball.

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