In ten years, help defense will be the standard technique used by all man-to-man defenses; vanilla, just-cover-your-guy methods will be considered old and out-of-date. Instead, man-help defense will be the vanilla. This is an adjustment that professional sports made long ago. Basketball has honed help defense to a science (1, 2) measured in feet and inches. Soccer defenses are built on outnumbering the offense, and a one-on-one situation is a sign of a significant defensive breakdown. In American football there are maybe three cornerbacks capable of covering the best receivers one-on-one.
Historically, ultimate teams have been able to get away with playing just-cover-your-guy defense for a couple of reasons. First of all, the total talent pool has been pretty small and so there are usually just a couple of teams at the top whose athleticism is far superior to everyone else’s. If you’re a step faster in every match-up, just-cover-your-guy is really effective. The other reason, also related to the total depth of talent, is that people just aren’t that good yet. (I mean that in the nicest way, but we are just entering a period where the best throwers have been throwing from childhood and there are still many great players who didn’t start throwing until they were eighteen. Not a recipe for achieving peak skill with a disc.) Defenders are capable of winning one-on-one match ups because throwers haven’t reached their full potential. But they are really close to the point where that defensive one-on-one will become unwinnable. There are already several match-ups in elite ultimate that fit that bill.
I want to really clarify what I am talking about here. When I say help-man, I am talking about a defense that is built out of a strict man-to-man with an emphasis on creating temporary double-coverages. Although techniques like poaching and switching are employed here, the general idea is to prevent rather than generate blocks. So in that vein, the strategy Team Japan used against Fury in Sakai (where they consistently sagged off Fury’s handlers to clog the center of the field) is a perfect example, but the 2002 Sockeye poach and switch defense is not because it was primarily geared at generating blocks. I’m not talking about defenses like a clam, FSU or Oregon’s help-zone, either. I love those defenses, but while they share techniques with help-man, they are fundamentally different because their base structure is zone.
Before we can get into the meat of this, we need some more definitions regarding space. One way to conceive of space on the field is to divide it into active, on-stage, and dead. In a vertical stack, the two alleys are active, the dump, front and back of the stack are on stage and the middle of the stack is dead space. In a horizontal with a centered disc, all six cutters are on stage and it is the space right in front of the disc that is active.
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, we can get into the meat of the concept. There are many, many different tactics for help defense that depend on the shape of the offense and the location of the disc, but there are also a few guiding principles that provide a framework for planning these tactics.
The two most important fundamentals to build into your basic defensive skills are keeping your head up and communication. These two fundamentals are most important. First, play with your head up. This is a physical action that prepares you to take mental action. Just-cover-your-guy defense requires that you look at your assignment and nothing else. Help-man requires that you know what is going on around you; to do that you need to lift your head. In the still below, you see the three Sockeye defenders in the back of the stack are heads up looking at the whole field. The second fundamental is communication. As a team gets better at playing help defense, switches and helps will happen naturally without any spoken words, but not always and certainly not at the beginning. It doesn’t take a lot of talking or a lot of words. The best thing to say is the other defenders name and then point at what you want them to see. If you’ve sorted out your tactics ahead of time, the switch or help becomes second nature here. It is equally important that all the defenders play with their ears open; nothing is more frustrating that screaming at a teammate who seems to be willfully ignoring you.
If you are covering a player who is in dead space, you should move away from them and help defend the active part of the field. There is no reason to stay right on an offensive player who is in the dead space of the field. All you are doing is allowing clean, open space for the active cutters to work in isolation. You often have to move pretty far to be effective, sometimes as much as 15-20 meters. Well spaced offenses make you choose by moving the dead space cutters a long, long way from the active parts of the field.
Your help positioning should also prepare you to return to your assignment as play develops. This isn’t zone or junk defense. You have an assignment. It is essential that you help in such a way as to allow you to return to your assignment if necessary. Usually this is after some kind of lateral pass that shifts the angles on the field.
If you are in the on-stage space, look to help opportunistically, but stay home. The simplest example of this is last back in a vertical stack. You are covering the person most likely to cut next, so you need to stay with them, but you are also the person best situated to help on deep cuts running down the lanes on the sides of the field. So you do both; stay home and use your fundamentals to put yourself in a situation to help or switch.
Play differential defense. This is particularly true for juniors and college teams, but when you are playing a team with a single dominant thrower it often makes more sense not to help off of them. Helping, particularly around the disc, usually means giving up a swing or a dump to prevent a yardage gaining comeback or huck. If all the players on the other team are equally talented, this is always a good choice. Obviously, this isn’t the case and when a team has one really great thrower it often pays to deny them the disc whenever possible.
I am going to wrap up for this week and return next week with a close examination of helping in handler sets, where to help in different offensive sets and some specific examples from recent games.