The Browns attempted 18 play action passes versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 8 of those passes were bootlegs off of outside zone run looks. With 40 total passing plays, this means that these made up 20% of the passing offense and that play action in total made up 45%. That's a considerable portion of what the team likes to do. (The stat line says Hoyer had 34 passing attempts. There were 3 sacks, a 2-point conversion attempt, a Hoyer scramble, and a play negated by an offensive holding penalty that I also counted as passing plays.)
Since Week 10 will be the first time Cleveland and Cincinnati square off this season, there's no head-to-head film to study. Given that the Ravens run a very similar scheme to the Browns offense, looking at tape from the most recent Baltimore-Cincinnati matchup could prove quite useful in getting a sense for how the Bengals will handle the Browns play action attack. In their Week 8 game, the Ravens ran 6 play action pass plays off of outside zone action. I'll take a look at each of these and provide you with an image showing the route combinations on the play and another showing how these had developed at the point when Flacco chose his target or decided to tuck the ball away and run. (Note: the numbers provided are to make it clearer which receivers or routes I'm talking about. They do not necessarily coincide with the quarterback's progression on the play.)
2nd-and-10 from the Baltimore 10:
Flacco rolls to his right. He has a receiver 1-on-1 with a corner down the sideline (#1), but also has two underneath crossing routes open (#2 and #3). Any of these three routes are viable targets here, though the quarterback has to be careful not to hang the ball high and to the inside if he targets receiver #1 (because that would give the safety a chance to make a play on the ball). The post coming from the backside of the play (#4) is dangerous, because the deep safety is within range to undercut it.
This looks good for the Browns' chances and it resulted in a positive play for the Ravens. Flacco chose receiver #2 and they picked up a 15-yard gain to get out from the shadow of their own goalpost. On a similar play versus Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers covered the frontside three (#1, #2, #3) but Hoyer worked through his progression and hit a wide open Ben Tate with a lob pass on the backside (#5). Most quarterbacks would have either tried to thread the needle to one of the three receivers on the front of the play, would have thrown the ball away, or would have taken off running.
2nd-and-12 from the Cincinnati 23:
Flacco rolls right again with three receivers worth considering here (#4 is in too much traffic and #5 would have to be wide open to make a throw all the way across the field worth risking...and he isn't on this play). #3 is the safest play, but taking this checkdown might put you in a 3rd-and-8 on the next play. That's better than an incompletion, but still likely leads to settling for a field goal attempt on this possession.
#1 is a gamble. It needs to be a bullet and it needs to be low. I think this is where Flacco wanted to go on the play, but he saw that if he didn't get the power he wanted or hung it just a little bit that it would be intercepted by the deep safety. #2 is a similar option. It looks more open but by the time he gets his shoulders turned square to the target the safety will be all over it. So, Flacco plays it safe and picks up a 4-yard gain to receiver #3.
The Bengals defense was on top of things here, which is concerning. However, it would be fair to say that it being 2nd-and-12, they were probably willing to risk giving up a 5-or-so-yard run and focused on playing sound coverage instead. Therefore, it shouldn't be too surprising that they didn't bite on the play action fake.
1st-and-10 from the Baltimore 33:
This time the quarterback rolls to his left. #4 and #5 are covered. The pivot route (#2) is actually well-covered but still an option (not to mention that Gabriel, Hawkins, and especially Austin are all very good at getting open on these). The corner bites on the double move outside (#1) and has to commit an illegal contact penalty to keep from getting beaten over the top. Flacco targets that receiver but the ball falls incomplete.
I wonder if he saw the tight end coming wide open over the middle (#3). It's quite possible that he did -- though he showed no indication of it -- because he may have made the same choice regardless, given that his vertical receiver was winning on his route. Either way, it is promising for the Browns offense that the tight end was able to come so free 10 yards downfield and with some room to run ahead of him to pick up additional yardage.
1st-and-10 from the Baltimore 19:
Flacco once again shows play action off outside zone action but this time without a bootleg. The wide receivers go deep downfield. The running back heads to the playside flat. The fullback cuts the backside end...then gets up to receive a screen pass. The Bengals flowed too hard to the playside and the fullback was able to pick up a 21-yard gain. If he had gotten tied up with the backside end, the running back was a checkdown option on the playside.
I'm not sure about this one, for a couple reasons. First off, this seems heavily dependent on a healthy running game. I'm hoping for the best but I'm not ready to place any bets on it getting turned around just yet. Additionally, I doubt the Bengals will fall for this again so soon, especially given how they've maintained their discipline and stayed at home versus the run and in coverage (see receiver #5 in the previous play and notice the linebacker in zone coverage on the backside of the play). If this opportunity does present itself, though, I'd be curious to see what Kiero Small could do with it.
1st-and-10 from the Cincinnati 23:
Very nice coverage by Cincinnati here. #1, #2, and #3 are all covered. Flacco could fire the ball in to #3 and possibly get a completion to pick up 3 or 4 yards and keep the offense on schedule. Instead, he chooses to take off himself and he actually picks up 13 yards on the ground. Brian Hoyer doesn't have those wheels. What he does have, though, is a habit for keeping his eyes going until he's either run out of options or run out of time.
Flacco isn't being pressured here. In similar situations, Hoyer has taken his time and looked through all of his opportunities, including on the backside. #4 is open for a touchdown. Would Hoyer have found him here? Would he have taken the chance, throwing as far across the grain of the defense as he possibly could? I can't say, but such an attempt would likely either have very, very good or very, very bad results.
2nd-and-2 from the Baltimore 26:
Again, #4 and #5 are not options on the play. The quarterback has a checkdown (#3) that may be able to bull through a tackle and pick up the first down on this 2nd-and-2. Flacco sees receiver #1 on his deep post from the other side of the field. He opts for the bomb and watches it fall incomplete. I can't argue with the decision -- and given the coverage I'd call it probably 50-50 that he completes it for a huge play -- but he had an underneath receiver wide open for at least a 15-yard gain and possibly much more (#2).
So, once again, we're seeing receivers coming completely free over the middle between 10 and 20 yards downfield and occasionally guys over the top as well. Not bad, but the Bengals aren't exactly leaving the offense the keys to the safe or anything. The plays are there to make but they aren't easy and aren't always easy to find either. But they are there.