Good news, bad news. The St. Louis Rams were not horrible defending the play-action last season. They were hardly great, and the play-action was generally more successful than not against the Rams, but they had a respectable showing against it. When it came to running the play-action, which was kind of the centerpiece of the offense, they were not very good at it.
Football Outsiders ran the numbers on teams using and defending the play-action last season.
The Rams offense leaned heavy on the play-action, running it on 24 percent of all offensive snaps. Only three teams used it more. St. Louis averaged 5.8 yards per play, the same number for play-actions where the ball was actually thrown, i.e. taking out sacks, scrambles, penalties, etc. The Rams had a DVOA of -11 percent on all play-action calls and -12.2 percent on passes only.
Negative DVOA for offenses is bad, but that number was considerably better than the Rams' DVOA of -30.1 percent on all offensive plays, the worst mark in the league.
Only four offenses were worse than the Rams on play-action passes. The league average was 7.5 yards per play and a 19.6 percent DVOA. On play-actions with the passes only, the league average was 7.6 yards per play and a 18.2 percent DVOA.
Analysis: Not a huge surprise that the Rams would run the play-action as much as they did with Steven Jackson the center of their offense. Jackson has been the Rams' player defenses most have to concern themselves with, so using a fake handoff to him makes sense, and probably helps make the team a little more successful on offense. The play-action is also a great way to take some heat off a quarterback, something the Rams desperately needed to do last season. If the Rams had better receiving options, the play-action might have been even more successful, but then they might not have needed to run it much either.
And how about the defense? Well, they were not bad.
The defense allowed an average of 7.5 yards per play on all play-actions for a 9.4 percent DVOA. On play-actions with just the passes, those numbers change to 7.8 yards per play and 9.1 percent DVOA. The NFL average was 7.5 yards and a 13.3 percent DVOA for all play-action plays and 7.6 yards per pass with a 12.2 percent DVOA on play-actions with the pass only.
The Rams' defensive DVOA on plays without a play-action was 3.6 percent, considerably better.
Remember, positive DVOA for defensive plays mean that the offense was more successful than the defense.
Analysis: It's a testament to the defense that they were not so easily fooled by the fake handoff, which is helped by having a middle linebacker like James Laurinaitis. Quintin Mikell helps too. On the other hand, it does reveal the team's coverage issues; though, I admit to being surprised that it wasn't worse given the state of the team's cornerbacks last year.