Help: Part I

by | July 30, 2014, 6:00am 17

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the standard technique used by all man-to-man defenses; vanilla, just-cover-your-guy methods will be considered old and out-of-date.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.

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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.


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  • Martin

    As always, Lou, this is a great article. But you realize that as soon as help-schemes become more common place in ultimate (and I agree that is where we are going at some point barring a massive revelation on man-to-man defense) it will open the door for offensive schemes that are designed to test your help defense. Do you like running a give and go switch? Great, our team will run a give-and-go with and big-small pair to force the mismatch after your switch. Do you like providing strong side help from a reset defender? Ok, our team is going to send that reset on a tour around the field so that you lose track of them.

    Don't get me wrong, I LOVE the idea that the sport is going this direction. These types of adjustments are super common in basketball. Should I go over or under the pick/screen depends on so many factors it gets dizzying. Thank you so much for writing this piece and I look forward to the second part of it.

    • Guest

      I think that your suggested responses to help defense are great responses to help defense, but could be less than helpful against vanilla defense. For that reason, I think most teams will continue to play strict man at least some of the time in order to force the offense to identify the help D before they can react to it.

      I suspect more teams will play more help more often, but strict man will not disappear.

    • Lou: First: I strongly believe this will series will become one of the five or so most important strategic Ultimate writings online.

      Second, I think there is a psychological (I'm thinking behavioral econ here, though maybe "rational choice" is actually the better model) explanation for why we see so little of this currently. Defense is harder to measure and evaluate than offense. Is it good to get blocks, or to deny touches? Wait, isn't it better to deny yards than to deny touches? That's before you get into the second-order questions: Is it good to stay tight to your man or help off a bit or to help off A LOT (poach). These questions are only beginning to be answered quantitatively in sports like basketball and football. Good luck in Ultimate, which will never have enough sample for defense plus-minus. For our "Ultiworld D Rating", we just throw it all into the mixer and randomly assign weights to each variable we can measure — because that's the best we can do.

      So defenders that tend to make elite club teams are the defenders who tend to stand out — defenders who get blocks. The combination of a tryout structure and just availability bias makes it tougher to recognize players who's elite ability is team and help defense.

      That's how we got to where we are today. That's why the top teams are mostly all playing tight, honest, no-help man-to-man. The desire for one of those borderline teams to win will lead to experimentation, which will eventually lead to success, which will eventually change the norm.

      Martin: Offenses will develop to make help defense more difficult. But defenses will keep adjusting in response. Great defenders, especially great team defenders, can live with "probabilities." What I mean by this is that the Indiana Pacers sag under the pick and roll; sometimes get burned by the wide open midrange, but trust it works in the longrun. 2012 Miami, knowing they have different personnel, blitz pick and roll. 2014 Portland Trailblazers took more midrange shots, thinking that help defenses gave them up too readily and they had suddenly become undervalued. There is no equilibrium, but I think it continually pushes towards more complexity, and more understanding of probabilities/expected values.

      • Martin

        Sean, I completely agree with defenses learning to live with probabilities and accepting certain adjustments. First off we (and by we I mean you) need to finish a general probability chart for throws taken from different positions on the field. Should I offer help on the 10 yard gain at the expense of the 15 yard lateral pass? Should I call for a switch on a deep cut even though it will give up the 10 yard break-side pass? These are the questions that better statistics/understanding will allow teams of be able to ask. Then defense and schemes will start getting better. But we aren't there yet. I just want to live in that world now.

      • Burruss

        Sean, One of the biggest psychological factors is that the best team in the world right now, Revolver, plays vanilla and plays it excellently. Although their defense would improve if they could wisely incorporate more helping principles without damaging their excellent defensive ethos, they are already the best defense in the world and winning because of it. They have limited pressure to change. The surprising (to me) aspect is that the teams that are trying to best them are trying to do it by playing the same kind of ultimate. Ring, Sub, Ironside…they should be experimenting; what do they have to lose? That's sports, though, I guess and until someone comes along and does it differently it'll seem like this is the only way to play.

        Just to nerd out for a second – one of the limitations of the SportsVu technology is that it assumes a lack of evolution in the game, but the game definitely evolves and your point about the Trailblazers is a great one. The return of the vert is an excellent example from ultimate.

        Martin, Teams will definitely adjust. The elite club teams have already started running a little switch on the give-and-go portion of the neoclassic endzone offense making that offense much less successful. This is all part of the process.

  • robpg

    A great topic I've tried to pay attention to on my own when watching footage.

    Regarding a vertical stack, can the break side lane be considered dead space? The force from the mark dictates which side you are lined up on your opponent, and puts you in position to help on the open side if need be. Is this something players [I'm on a college team] should actively look for? Or should it fall more under the idea of "stay home, help opportunistically"?

    • Redtom

      Every mark is breakable, so the breakside should be live and active.

      • Burruss

        I am going to talk about how different structures create space more specifically next week, so this question is going to get answered in much greater detail but here's a quick stab. I agree with Redtom about marks and the natural extension of that is that it isn't the live/dead split that matters so much as the strong/weak split. (Strong meaning disc side of the field, weak meaning opposite side of the field.) 95% of the time in all offenses, the strong side is the active space and the weakside is the dead space.

        This means that you often what to stand on the break side of your player. For example, if you are guarding a player in the stack with the disc on the backhand sideline and the force is forehand you actually want to stand slightly on the 'break'side of the cutter because the near lane is much more reachable than the far side of the field. You also have a lot of time to recover on that big swing pass.

  • Chaz

    You suggest that as throwers improve, defenses will have to play more help D.

    I think it's also possible that we see the opposite effect if throwers improve. If everyone expands their arsenal and accuracy, the person with the disc will now be able to exploit the poach. Essentially, the "dead space" will grow smaller and smaller to the point where leaving the person you're covering will result in a free throw.

    • felixshardlow

      Yeah, throwers will improve, and that will be combined with offences changing so there are no 'dead-space cutters', and every player is hittable.

      Smart approaches to defenses like what Lou's talking about here will push offence forward – a push it has been lacking for many decades as everyone has just settled for tight man-to-man defence and the occasional zone. Hybrid defences such as help-man are where the sport's defence is headed, and they will require a smarter approach to offence too.

      • Burruss

        As a thought experiment, go to the extreme position of a player who can accurately place the disc anywhere they want on the field. What defender can ever win a one-on-one match up? Far better to help on the most threatening and damaging cuts and force the offense to throw the disc elsewhere.

        As throwing and receiving skills improve, defense is less about completely stoning a team (which you can still do at the college level) than it is about percentages – as a defender if you are choosing between two options, which decreases the oppositions chance of scoring the most?

        • felixshardlow

          Yep – keeping it simple plays to the already-existing offensive advantage, making it a percentages/gambling game, and using proper teamwork, plays to the defense (although the offense should always have the advantage, if they know how to play to it).

  • mmm

    I disagree, Lou. This game isn't like football or soccer or basketball enough such that help defense is better. First off, in football, there are more players and a much more accurate ball. That makes being open by a step open. In ultimate, that ain't open against an athlete because the can layout and a disc is much less precise. And in football, there are basically 7 players that are covering 3-5 receivers on a passing down, so of course they will help. In soccer, allowing yardage isn't nearly as bad as it is in ultimate because only the last 30 yards come with a much better statistical chance of scoring. Not so in ultimate, especially because the yards you give up don't collapse the defense as much as in soccer – you aren't going for a goal, you're going for an endzone. So even 20 yards from the endzone you have lots of space that needs to be defended, enough such that poaching is easily punished. Basketball has the same issue – the object (the hoop) is central and the defense will collapse about that point, such that help defense is viable. That's the whole reason behind the 3 point line – to spread the game out. On great shooters you still have to play man to man.

    Ultimate is fairly unique in terms of how much space you have to play (making poaching require moving far) and how unreliable the game object is (a disc is very unpredictable compared to a football or basketball). This makes man to man d much more necessary and possible. A disc is in the air for a lot longer and a layout makes up a lot of ground especially when you can throw yourself at it because you don't need to catch it. And the advent of the marker shuts down a lot more space on the field than in other sports – in football the quarterback has people protecting him and can throw anywhere with a ball that can get to either side of the receiver in a very small time – in basketball the distances are short and throwing it is easy. Meanwhile in ultimate a defender needs to defend a lane and doesn't have to worry nearly as much about most directions the offense can cut – horizontal cuts run out of space a lot faster, and a disc isn't precise enough such that a post route helps much. In or out is all you really need and then just stay close in the breakspace in case you need to make a play on a poorly thrown break. Laying out and how long a disc is in the air combine to make open require more separation than in other sports.

    Of course poaching can still be done – there's no reason not to poach if a team is running a vert stack on you. It's just way too easy to help. For a ho stack I think playing tiki – taka down the field on horizontal handler sagging is very easy for elite teams and doesn't work nearly as well and that's why you don't see as much of it. But I don't think it will work as part of your philosophy beyond so much as "keep your head on a swivel so you can make plays on throws near you."

    • Burruss

      The major disagreement we have here is about the nature of ultimate. Culturally, it is very different from other sports, but as a game, ultimate isn't that different from any other sport. The spaces in football, soccer and basketball are so different from each other and yet all those sports play help defense. There are seven defenders dropped out on passing downs because the defense has chosen to play that way – no one mandated it. In soccer, it is in those last 30 yards where double teaming is most common; higher in the field you are much likelier to see single press.

      It is the defense's goal to constrict space and the offense's goal to expand it. A side stack is the offense's method of expanding the active space on the field. By tracking with your cleared assignment in this situation, you are letting the offense dictate the terms of the game and the size of the field. It is far better to sag off into the lane and constrict space.

      Another small thought – I don't think frisbees are less accurate than balls – they are actually far more accurate. The aerodynamics are such that you can do things with a frisbee that you could never do with a ball. Also, a 70% completion rate for an NFL quarterback is obscenely good. Most elite club teams average above 90%. The speed of the disc is an issue, but that might be more about technique than physics although my instinct is that your cannot throw a frisbee as fast as you can throw a ball.

      • guest

        Pass completion rates are not a good comparison of accuracy because there are different objectives (a pass losing yards is not much good in football) and different defenses. For a pure accuracy comparison, look at a baseball – we know that good pitchers can regularly hit the corner of home plate. Let's say that's a 5-inch wide window, to be generous. How many ultimate players can hit a 5-inch target from 60 feet away on a consistent basis, even given that we have a bigger object with which to hit it?

      • Guest

        I agree that frisbees are more generally more accurate and allow for more creativity than balls, but footballs in particular have certain other features that change how space is defined. Speed is probably higher for a football, but the other big difference in defining relevant space is how much more easily a football can be thrown over something. Its natural flight path is a parabola, meaning to a good quarterback a defender 15 yards away directly in line with a target 30 yards away can easily be bypassed with an arcing throw. In ultimate this situation requires a more technically challenging curve or an upside down throw, either of which travels relatively slowly and allows defenders to recover. Meanwhile, a defender 15 yards away in line with a target 60 yards away would be less relevant in ultimate, since a good huck often spends the middle part of its flight at an uncatchable height and travels more like a long football pass.

  • Merica

    Meters? Wth, Lou?!?!