Mullen Offense 101: Handing off against two deep safeties

The SEC has a number of very one-sided series. Mississippi State, which is kind of like the Kentucky of the West division in football terms, is on the receiving end of a couple of them. One is with LSU, with the Tigers holding a 28-5 edge since 1985. In fact, LSU went on a 21-1 run from 1992 through 2013.

Dan Mullen came close to ending that streak earlier in a 30-26 loss in 2009, but he broke through with his best team taking down the Tigers 34-29 in 2014. His Bulldogs also stomped LSU 37-7 last year to even up the score in the last four games in the series, but it’s the 2014 contest I’m going to focus on today.

John Chavis was still the defensive coordinator for the Tigers. He gained notoriety during his time in Baton Rouge with his 3-2-6 “mustang” package being successful at shutting down spread offenses. His base defense, though, is a 4-3 that played a lot of two-high safety looks. He might have one of those safeties play all over the field, but “4-3 with a lot of two-deep safety looks” is the overly simplified, in-a-nutshell description of what you get from Chavis a good chunk of the time.

In an old video from his Utah days that I’ve referenced before, Mullen gave a quick rundown of what his offense looks for. The key is where the safeties are. If both are up in the box, they’ll throw to take advantage of the void in the middle of the field. If one is back, they’ll run either quarterback draws or option plays to get a numbers advantage at the point of attack. If both safeties are back, they’ll dispense with the option and just hand it off and let the five linemen block the defenders in the box.

Those were the keys back then on standard downs when the offense had a choice to run or pass, though it was never that basic and things have changed and gotten more complex since. Still, just handing it off against a two-high safety look is something that will work for a spread team with a good line. Such was the case for Mississippi State in 2014 when it faced off against Chavis and his two-high safety looks.

For a lot of the game, MSU did not actually do a lot of handoffs against two-high looks. Mullen preferred to use option or straight quarterback draws for a lot of it, trying to get the numbers advantage that comes with either reading an unblocked defender or simply running the quarterback. Later on, LSU switched to using a lot more single-high safety looks, which obviously prevents the offense from running against a two-high look. When that didn’t help, the Tigers went back to two-high safety sets late, and that’s when MSU did most of its handoffs against that kind of defense.

I made a compilation video of all of State’s handoffs against two-high looks in the entire game. Because the offensive linemen did a good job of making their blocks against the defense, the Bulldogs averaged 12.6 yards per carry with a perfect 100% success rate on these plays. The only one to go for under five yards was a three-yard carry on a 2nd & 1 run, and three of the rushes went for 20 or more yards.

Before giving you the montage, I’ll diagram out the important stuff from the first two plays in the compilation.

The first might’ve looked at first like a read option play, as the defensive end on the left end of the line is initially unblocked. A pulling tight end will take care of him, though, showing it to be a handoff all the way. With no one left unblocked, there’s no one for Dak Prescott to read.

The two key blockers are the left tackle and center. They have the job of going to the second level to take on the linebackers. They will do so, driving their assignments to the left to create running lanes.

Josh Robinson takes the handoff and heads through the hole created by the left tackle and guard. The cornerback lined up on the slot receiver, perhaps seeing the unblocked end and thinking it’s a read option, hangs out wide for a bit to respect the threat of the quarterback run and will end up getting taken out by the left tackle’s block. With everyone doing their job initially, Robinson heads to the second level.

There he will meet the safety who started on the right side of the formation (the one on the left has chased the slot man to the sideline). Robinson somehow stops on a dime and bounces out right, causing the safety to get caught up in the center’s block. As that was the safety on the right, there’s no one else to deal with over there and Robinson rumbles 30 yards down the field.

The second play begins with a man in motion. The snap will come right as he’s crossing where the quarterback is, creating a jet sweep fake. The linebacker on the right will go out wide of the play to account for him, while the linebacker who had been lined up on the motion man in the left slot will slide over into the box.

With one linebacker taken out of the play by the jet sweep motion, that leaves six blockers (five linemen, one tight end) for six box defenders (four linemen, two linebackers). If every blocker does his job, the running back should get to the second level untouched. So, what are those jobs?

The left tackle and tight end will take care of the two defensive ends. The center will take care of the left defensive tackle. The right guard and tackle will initially double team the other defensive tackle in a combo block before the guard releases to get the middle linebacker. The right guard actually doesn’t get a good hit on the middle linebacker, but that’s OK because the left guard has pulled around through the hole between the tight end and right tackle to be a lead blocker. The pulling left guard helps out in neutralizing the middle backer.

The left side backer never makes an impact until the very end because he was still shifting at the snap and was caught off balance. The linebacker on the right who runs out of the play to cover the jet sweep does end up coming back and making the tackle, but not before Ashton Shumpert has gained five yards on 2nd & 2. It’s not a 30-yard run, but it does the job of moving the chains.

Here is the full supercut of Mississippi State running handoffs against two-high safeties.

As I said, 2004 Dan Mullen doesn’t describe exactly how 2018 or even 2014 Dan Mullen’s offense works, but you can see the appeal of handing it off against a two-deep safety look. As fast as even LSU’s safeties are, they can’t stuff a run play when they begin so far off the ball without the line or linebackers beating blocks and slowing down the ball carrier. Plus, the quarterback won’t take a hit when it’s a straight handoff. The threat of a quarterback run can still freeze a defender as in the case of the first play, but the signal caller will escape without unnecessary contact.

So, when the Gators face a team this fall that is keeping both safeties back a lot, you should expect to see them do a fair amount of forgoing the option and just handing it off. If the offensive line shapes up under John Hevesy this offseason, it should lead to some real success on the ground.