The play (action) is the thing


Carson Palmer

Posted: 8:20 a.m.

Thanks to the cleverness of quarterback Boomer Esiason and a clockwork running game, Cincinnati used to be the play-action capital of the NFL.

After years of exile the hard-sell play-action is back with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski continuing to dust it off in the hopes of one day reaching the Esiason heights. For the moment, he prefers it simply be the positive factor it was in the last two wins during Sunday's game for first place in the AFC North against the Steelers that could be a smashmouth circus instead of a passing derby on sloppy Heinz Field.

One thing that is always certain is the run-fake is only going to be as good as the running game. Which is why it is back in Bengaldom in the first place.

"The running game and play-action go hand-in-hand," said Bratkowski after Thursday's practice. "When we worked on the running game in the offseason we put in the play-action at the same time."

For a quarterback using a harder play-fake, Carson Palmer has been a quick study. According to the Elias Sports Bureau he has completed 22 of 35 play-action passes for 297 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for a 97 rating.

It comes out to a 62.8 completion percentage and 8.5 yards per attempt, which is higher than his regular numbers of 61.5 percent, 7.05 yards per attempt, and an 89.5 passer rating. But the impact is felt in bigger places, such as a tie for fourth in the NFL for fewest sacks and a No. 7 ranking in allowing sacks per pass.

"The benefits are it keeps the rush off you a little bit and it gives you a different style of pass," said quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. "Those (pass rushers) aren't just up the field all the time. It holds the linebackers down a little bit and having to attempt to throw it behind them instead of trying to just throw between guys on dropback passes.

"We looked around and said, 'How are these guys able to stand back there forever and throw the ball on some of these actions? OK, which ones? There is something to those.' Because if we get him time to stand down a little bit and we can suck up a few people with a run-fake, we've got a chance to be deadly."

The Bengals defense will see a deadly one Sunday. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leads the league with a 158.3 rating on play-action on 29-of-30 for 459 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. But the Steelers have been doing it for awhile. As solid as Palmer's numbers are, he's still only in the middle of the NFL pack in play-action passer rating, which just goes to show how effective and better it can be.

It helps the Bengals are averaging 4.2 yards per carry after three years in which they've finished the season averaging less than four yards per carry. But even in '04 and '05, it wasn't a hard sell play-action or very frequent. A major reason is probably that their best personnel group was three receivers, a tough formation to run a play-action out of for everybody but Peyton Manning.

"We've worked on it a ton. It's something I've needed to work on and continue to work on," Palmer said. "The main reason we've done so much of it is because we've been so effective running the ball ... we work on it every day. We have special periods where we designate a certain amount of time to work on the action. It's something that's never perfect. It can never be done, where you can say, 'We've got this.' It's something we work on every day in practice."

Play-action is a three-fold operation. The quarterback has to give a believable fake, the running back has to carry out a real fake, and, maybe most importantly, the offensive line has to fire out in order to make it believable.

"The best way to make play-action work," said running back Cedric Benson, proclaiming the cardinal rule of play-action, "is to be able to run the ball."

It all gets back to the offensive coaches ripping up the running game over the offseason and the players embracing the hard-nosed mentality. And the offensive linemen appreciate how it defuses the rush.

"With the way we want to run it downhill, you've got to be able to use it," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "The whole team is selling the play more. We've definitely gotten a lot better at it. We'll continue to work at it and get better and better at it because it's something that will help us down the road. It doesn't matter if teams know you run play-actions. If they look just like your runs it puts teams in tough situations.

"Its part of a change that now we run the football so well, the mentality is getting the same. Over time you can't sit back there and throw the ball all the time. You've got to be able to find ways to get the ball out of your hands. That's why you see a lot of teams run these underneath screens and all that stuff because they've figured out there's no way you can just sit back there and throw all the time."

It's a challenge for Palmer's mechanics because a good run fake entails so many different elements that it alters where he throws it from and his vision of the field. So far, so good even though he's had to hand off with his right hand after spraining his left thumb.

And there was one post in the end zone in Green Bay that went wide of wide receiver Chad Ochocinco in part because Palmer carried out his play-fake so well that he saw the coverage late, which is a hazard of the action game.

"He's really worked at it," said backup quarterback Jordan Palmer.  "A lot of it is a lean into the handoff. Tony Romo is good at it. Carson is getting good at it. Peyton Manning."

And when it works, like it did against Chicago from the Bears three-yard line, it looks easy.

Tight end J.P. Foschi was wide open for his first NFL touchdown when he carried out his end of the play-fake by blocking the linebacker.

"I did everything like it was a run and then I let him go," Foschi said.  "And Carson had plenty of time to get it to me."

The one thing missing off play-action is the long ball, but that's something the Bengals aren't doing a lot of, anyway. The two longest catches for wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles (50 and 37 yards, respectively) came off run after the catch.

"Teams just aren't letting Chad run deep; they're just not letting us throw it long," Jordan Palmer said. "One of the ways to get those 15-yard, 25-yard chunks is play-action."

With the University of Pittsburgh playing at Heinz Field Saturday night and the grass already notoriously bad in November and December, it's probably not going to be a fast track, anyway. Which fits into the premise that Bratkowski used in retooling.

"We wanted to be a better running team," Bratkowski said. "In this division you need to be a physical team and you know you're going to play games in late November, December that are going to be bad weather games. We have an extremely talented quarterback, but if the weather gets rainy and windy, you have to be able to have the running game."

And, some action.

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