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Play-action passing game remains part of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' formula for success

Bucs receiver Mike Williams catches a 47-yard touchdown from Josh Freeman off a play-action last season against the Cardinals.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times (2010)

Bucs receiver Mike Williams catches a 47-yard touchdown from Josh Freeman off a play-action last season against the Cardinals.

TAMPA — Bucs receiver Mike Williams made his share of big plays last season, but few were as effortless as his 47-yard touchdown catch against the Cardinals.

Williams streaked past single coverage and caught a tight spiral from quarterback Josh Freeman, crossing the goal line before he was touched.

It was the sort of play the Bucs have promised but didn't deliver in Sunday's season-opening loss to Detroit, when they had just one play longer than 20 yards.

But coaches and players insist big plays will come. And they'll likely be a result of the very thing that let Williams score that easy touchdown in Arizona: play-action passes.

Every team uses it to varying degrees, but for Tampa Bay, the tactic is a basic tenet.

"That's kind of our formula," coach Raheem Morris said. "If you're trying to get the formula for our offense, we want to run the football and be able to have some hard play action and throw the ball down the field and be able to get the ball in our playmakers' hands."

The Bucs have said all week they intend to get back to their offensive identity Sunday against the Vikings. For all the talent the Bucs have at receiver, they know those players can't be as effective without consistent play action.

Play action, which involves a fake handoff to the running back and a "hard sell" by other players, can impact a defense in many negative ways.

"You see (defensive backs) jumping out of their coverage to go jump the run," Williams said. "You end up, sometimes, with some wide-open routes. With play action, you have to have a good running game. You have to have (defenders) thinking, 'I have to go down there and help.' You see them jump and then you're wide open. That's what I love."

But for play action to work, everything must come together. And there are many moving parts.

In a perfect world, here's how it all works:

First, the running game has to be consistent and successful. Last season, LeGarrette Blount was the best thing to happen to the team's play-action passing game. His battering-ram style required multiple defenders to make tackles, and often those extra defenders came from the secondary.

Once the running game is established, safeties begin to play closer to the line of scrimmage to support the front seven.

It's pretty obvious when the running game is clicking, receiver Dez Briscoe said. "They start loading the box and you start to see the safety biting."

When that happens, it falls on the receivers to take them out. Williams and Arrelious Benn are very skilled and willing blockers, a key element of the play action.

"When they're out there taking out safeties, the safeties start looking at them because they don't want to get hit," receivers coach Eric Yarber said. "And they're also looking for the run coming their way, too.

"Really, we're setting them up."

If the receivers prevent safeties from chipping in on run support, then it falls to the cornerbacks to help. All the while, coaches in the skybox watch the sequence and keep offensive coordinator Greg Olson abreast. When the time is right, he'll dial up a play-action shot down the field.

"They're watching, and they're waiting (to use) that hard-sell play action," Yarber said. "Once we go play action, Mike will come in and act like he's going to hit the safety, but then he'll go (run) a route. That's why we call it hard-sell play action."

If it all comes together, you get the result Williams got on that touchdown against Arizona: no safety and a cornerback trailing the play. All the ingredients were there that day. Blount ran for 120 yards, breaking numerous tackles. On Williams' touchdown, Freeman used a fake handoff to Blount that, if only for a milli­second, froze the defense.

"When the quarterback sees dead feet, he's going deep," Briscoe said. "What I was always told is, when you're even, you're leaving."

Without play action, however, the Bucs' passing game won't go anywhere.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at

Play-action passing game remains part of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' formula for success 09/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 10:24pm]
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