2014 CFC Coaches Clinic: Using the Play-Action Pass with Todd Downing (Part 2)

The second day of the Burlington Coaches Clinic was held on Saturday and those in attendance were treated to a seminar from new Buffalo Bills quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. Downing has spent 12 years in the NFL at various entry level coaching positions, spending time with the Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions and now the Buffalo Bills.


If there were two words that were recurring themes when listening to the seminar put on by Todd Downing, they were detail and confidence. As someone who has made his way to the NFL ranks, Downing is someone who practices both attention to detail and confidence in himself and his decisions. Not only does he implement these on his own life, but on the football field when working with quarterbacks at different stage.

“I’m a very detail oriented guy, and I believe that the quarterback position needs to be coached the same at any level,” he stated. “You need answers and you need details to everything your’re going to do.”

“There can’t be any ‘well I didn’t think about that’ and there can’t be any ‘well we should have thought of’ when you’re sitting there watching your film the morning after the game.”

Speaking to an audience of coaches, recruiters and young athletes who seemed to be hanging onto every word said by the highly accomplished quarterbacks coach, Downing went through a checklist of details that he understands to be pivotal and implementing the play-action pass into a game plan.

Does it Mirror One of Our Runs?

Downing stressed the importance of only using a play-action that matches the schemes that a team already has in its system and would use on a normal down-and-distance game plan.

“One of the most mind-boggling things is when I see people run schemes, at our level in the NFL especially, that don’t match what they do whatsoever,” he explained. “You got to mirror your run game. If you’re a two back power team, if you’re a one back zone team; whatever your system is, that’s how you match your play-actions.”

He explained how not using play-action passes that already fit within the frame work of the offence can end up working against you.

“Don’t do anything that’s outside of the framework of your formations or run actions just to add a play-action,” Downing stressed. “I think that dilutes your offence and it starts spreading you to thin and then your actually going against what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Todd Downing 4

Is it Simple Footwork for the Quarterback?

After stressing about the importance of using a play-action pass that fits nicely into the existing game plan, Downing moved on to speak about the importance of making sure the footwork is simple for the quarterback. Ensuring that the quarterback is capable of performing the footwork required for the play helps both him, and the play-caller have confidence in the play.

“Anything you can do to keep it simple for the quarterback, for his footwork, for his launch point, for his read, you need to do it,” said Downing. “If he does not feel comfortable doing it, he is not going to have confidence when you call that play, and you shouldn’t have confidence as a play caller if you think it’s tricky footwork that you need to put a lot of work into for him to get.”

Simplicity translates to confidence. The easier the execution of a play for the quarterback the more confident they will be when that play is called. Downing spoke about the difficulty some quarterbacks, especially young ones already have with five and seven foot drops or including a hitch and that if kept simple, the proper play-action package can actually be easier for them.

“Consider that when your putting these play action packages together, can I keep the footwork simple for the quarterback?” Downing mused. “If you keep it simple enough, you can make it easier than a five step drop for him, and keep him slowed down and keep good rhythm in his action.”

As well as keeping the play simple for the quarterback, Downing stressed the importance of ‘selling’ the run action, making sure that every detail is met to keep the play looking as much like an actual run as possible and keeping the defence guessing.

“Any thing you can do to keep the integrity of the look of the run, you want to do. He stated. “You want to sell the run action as best you can. That’s going to create that space in the defence that we are looking for.”

What are the Protection Issues?

Not only did Downing speak about the advantages of the play-action passing game, but about its weaknesses and how to overcome them or at least be aware of them.

“You may play in a level where there aren’t a lot of blitzes, but there are issues on the edge of play actions,” said Downing. “How can you keep the integrity of the pocket?”

“How can you break contain? How can you fool that defensive end? Can your running back abort the fake and go block someone is he is free?”

He accentuated the importance of the coach and play-caller being able find ways to overcome defensive pressure that may compromise the play and be sure not to compromise their own protection rules.

“Don’t compromise your protection rules to implement a play action,” he urged.  “When you bastardize protections to try to accomplish something in the backfield, your asking or a headache.”

“Don’t just assume. You want to assign people to people, have bodies for bodies. If you don’t have bodies for bodies, have answers.”

Will I Call it More Than Once?

The final part of the Downing’s checklist was asking how many times you plan on using the play-action in a game or game plan. A coach must know how many times he plans of utilizing a play-action attack in any game plan and had his own suggestions based on his own experiences. Again the idea of confidence is highly stressed.

For play callers this is a hard thing,” said Downing. “If it’s not something you have confidence calling more than once in a game plan, you have no business putting it in.”

Key to implanting a play-action passing attack into ones game plan is being sure that the quarterback and players around him can execute it.  The play-action is something that needs to have been drilled into the player’s abilities and is something not only can be called with confidence, but the players can perform with confidence.

“You need to invest time and repetition into these young kids to teach them how to execute the techniques your asking them to run. The same goes for you as a play caller. If your not willing to put the time in and drill this stuff, its not worth running.”

Downing explained what he has found to be a number range that he finds will help make sure the plays can be mastered and used with effectiveness but will not dilute the overall game plan and negatively affect the offence.

“The way I look at just overall play-actions in a game plan, I always have more than one and less than six,” he stated. “If you have more than six you probably aren’t going to call them more than once, and its going to get pushed down far enough from the stuff that you are comfortable with that your probably not going to get to it as a staple of your offence. “

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