The play-action pass still ranks among the most simple and widely used trick plays in the NFL. In fact, it's so widely used that calling it a 'trick' seems passe, and pointless. However, year in, year out we continue to see teams struggle to defend the simple play as it exploits over aggressive defensive lines and defensive backs.
Perhaps it's a product of having smart veterans in the secondary, or good coaching (possibly a combination of both), but the Atlanta Falcons were one of the best teams at defending the PA pass in 2011, this from the folks at Football Outsiders.
What makes FO's look at the defenses so impressive is that the Falcons were actually better against play-action passes than on plays without it. They had a stunning -5.4% DVOA rating on the year. This essentially means that teams did 5% worse on their standard PA passes when facing the Falcons, and this ranking is good enough to give Atlanta the 4th best PA defense in the NFL on DOVA, and one of only nine teams who finished with a negative rating.
One would think that playing in a division with running backs like LeGarrette Blount, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mark Ingram would lead to a situation where teams would be more susceptible to the PA pass, yet the Falcons managed to keep their heads above water. Obviously the defense as a whole wasn't perfect, but this creates an interesting scenario with new DC Mike Nolan preaching a more aggressive, attacking style of defense. By nature this could cause players to over-pursue and open up the PA pass more, but the reality is that these gains are manageable.
When it's all said and done we're looking at a difference of 3-4 yards here or there, but what this alludes to is a larger, more optimistic situation where the Falcons are playing intelligent, heads-up football. Quickly being able to identify a play and diffuse it is key, and if Atlanta can combine that with Nolan's attacking style they'll be in great shape.