Happy Thanksgiving. I am giving thanks for defense, one of my greatest joys in ultimate.
Most teams don’t give defensive strategy much thought. It’s man-force-forehand and maybe a zone. It’s not that these defenses are bad – in fact they can be quite good. It’s that there are so many other choices out there and so many other ways to be successful defensively. Defense is about making the other team uncomfortable. When so many teams play force forehand, everyone gets really comfortable playing against it. You might be a great force-forehand team and a terrible force-middle team, but find force-middle to be far more effective because the other team has never seen it and doesn’t know how to attack it. Frankly, I was surprised by how unsophisticated many of the teams at Club Nationals were this year. With teams composed of very experienced players, the opportunity to segregate offense and defense and a need to game plan to beat specific opponents there is no reason for a club team not to be prepared with three or more distinct defenses. The more defenses you can play, the less likely you are to be stuck playing a defense your opponent loves and the more likely you will kryptonite them.
I know these descriptions are thumbnails and each defense merits a full post in its own right. What I want to get at today are the options out there for teams to use so they don’t have to be stuck with the same old vanilla defense. Unless they want to be. Vanilla’s good.
Force forehand This is the classic defense of high school, college and city league teams everywhere. It works because most of the people on the other team can’t throw forehands nearly as well as their backhands. It also requires very little spatial awareness on the part of the defenders. This defense can get scary-effective in a side wind. Its major weakness is that everyone plays it, so offenses are used to it.
Force backhand At the elite club level, this defense splits time with force forehand. At that level, every team comes equipped with several players who can absolutely rip a forehand. A forehand huck is flatter, faster and less apt to float, making it much harder to defend. Out of necessity, teams force backhand. Another piece of the calculation for these teams is the ease with which teams can throw arounds. Most players are quite good at throwing a backhand around the mark (to reset), but not as good at a forehand. This makes the backhand trap harder to escape. Below the elite club (and a few college teams) level, there isn’t much cause to play this defense.
Force middle This is the greatest defense of all time. Seriously. The only problem is that it requires you to field seven defenders who are fast, technically sound and very good at reading the field. Ideally, all seven can pass the Blindfold Test. (Blindfold Test: magically freeze play and blindfold the defender. Can they point to the other 13 players on the field and say what they are doing?) The advantage is that it overplays the strong side by doubling up the marker and defender. The disadvantage is that defenders can get seesaw-lost and when they do, they get beat badly.
Straight up I’ve seen this be very effective in games, but not over the course of a season. Usually, it catches a team unawares and they struggle with the constant pressure from the mark. Then they recognize the straight up and that if they just fake once, they can throw whatever they want.
Combos and Transitions There are lots of ways to combine these. Straight up for three passes into forehand. Straight up on the sidelines and force forehand in the middle of the field. A progressive trap-to-trap where you trap both sides and play straight up in the middle. And so on. Typically, these are played to stop particular opponents or pull plays. I wouldn’t recommend them unless you get to the point of super-flexibility with your defense (see below).
3-Man Cup (Deeps up and back) Played with two wings, a short deep and a deep deep, this is the classic zone. The cup’s responsibility is to clog the middle of the field and prevent crashes and throughs. If the disc moves to the far side, the cup runs like crazy to get there while the wing and short deep try to avoid getting split. The wings are also responsible for helping the deep deep and often are dropping out into the hammer hole as the disc swings to the far side. A very flexible, but not very aggressive zone.
3-Man Cup (Deeps left and right) The cup works the same way, but the big hole is in the middle of the field where the short deep has disappeared from. The wings slide into this gap as the disc moves away from them, vacating the far weak side of the field. This zone is club standard. The big difference is that at the club level, the cups are very skilled at stopping the throughs (so you don’t need short deep help) and the throwers are so much more powerful (so the deep deep needs permanent, not occasional help).
3-Man Cup (Trapping version) It’s hard to say if this is a conservative version of a 4-man or an aggressive 3-man. It attempts to combine the best of both. You play 3-man when the disc is in the middle of the field where the offense has so many options and 4-man on the sideline where half the field is a turnover. A more detailed look at the 4-man follows. The problem this zone has is what to do when the disc is 7 yards off the sideline. Do you trap or not here? Also, a smart team will keep the disc away from the sidelines and avoid the trap all together.
4-Man Cup This zone brings an extra defender up into the cup allowing the defense to put much more pressure on dumps, swings and resets. It can trap (force sideline) or not (force middle). For many years following Fury’s crushing usage of it in 2003, this was the standard zone defense in women’s ultimate. It has always been a part of Florida (the state) ultimate and the Florida connection led Sockeye to use it very effectively this past year. If it is windy enough that you can’t throw hammers or the other team just can’t throw hammers, this defense is impenetrable. However, if they can throw overs, it isn’t so good. One hammer and you’re looking at a 3 on 5 the wrong way.
1-3-3 A single defender chases and marks the entire time. A wall of three players, all set at middle-middle depth, stop upfield throws. Two keys for the wall: play on the inside of the marker and don’t ever let them throw it between you. The three defenders in the back of zone play a triangle. This is a great beginning zone and is very easy to learn. You can get to good in a single game. Great, of course, takes longer. This zone has also fallen out of favor as more zone offenses crash the cup because the defense isn’t really set up to deal with that.
Box and One Typically played with a 3-man cup, 2 wings and a deep, the Box and One frees up a defender to play man-to-man on one of the handlers for the other team. This is an absolutely brutal defense against teams that rely on a single thrower. It is a miserable failure against balanced teams.
Exotics There are many more weird zones, but I think their effectiveness can be measured by their longevity.
General Note: By junk I mean any defense that lives in the funny place between man-to-man and zone. There is a lot of space between those two types of defense and much of it is unexplored, which is surprising considering how much soccer depends on these techniques.
Clam This is a very structured version where every player is assigned a specific area of the field and are responsible for covering (man-to-man) the people who enter it. This defense was originally developed to stop structured vertical stack offenses and did that very well. As vert stack becomes more and more popular, I would expect to see more and more Clams.
FSU This is a very unstructured defense that tells people to just “do what feels right.” You’d be surprised how well it works. Most teams supply some structure to it by sending players in three waves. The first wave is like a cup, the second like wings and the third is your deep(s).
Situationals The most obvious situational is to drop the defenders off of the handlers in a flat stack and have them clog the lane. In a vertical stack, the classic situational is to have the deepest player drop off and play ‘last back.’ These zone pieces, fit inside a general structure of man-to-man, are very effective. To make them great requires that all seven defenders are on the same page and ready to switch.
Poaching Unfortunately, most teams see this as a defensive lapse and not the incredibly valuable tool that it is. There are always times where your defenders need help with their one-on-ones and there are always times when offensive players aren’t doing anything; both of these are great times to poach. As with a Situational, poaching is much more effective when it is a team d and the poacher is supported by timely switches from her teammates.
Transitions A transition is where you play one defense for a few passes and then switch to another. Over the years, it has been found to be quite easy and effective to switch from zone to man. Despite occasional efforts, no one has found a use for man to zone. This is a great defense for stopping pull plays and isolations. The drawback is that you don’t get to pick your matchups.
How to Pick
A good defensive plan will play a basic man-to-man and a zone defense. This is the minimum. The step up from that (and it is a small one) is to add a junk defense of some kind. The easiest thing to do which will give you three defensive looks off of the pull is to play a man d, a zone and a zone transition. It is quite possible to get to super-flexibility with your defense even as a college team. It is typically a two-year investment to get your team culture up to the standard of playing a bunch of different defenses, but the basic idea is simple. Run a bunch of different zones where the focus is on fundamental zone skills. Run a bunch of different man-to-man defenses where the focus is again on fundamental skills. This will come at a cost of nuanced skills in a particular defense. In your game plan, never play the same defense twice in a row. (Except when you do.) Confusion and uncertainty is major strength of this system. Also, it allows you to find the defense that the other team is terrible at attacking and ride it to victory.
When trying to decide which defenses to pick, familiarity is your best friend. Know how to teach force-forehand? That makes it a good choice. However, if you are trying to run a defense you’ve never used before the number one trick is patience. The number two trick is patience. Pick a couple fundamental points, hammer those and let the team work through the puzzle of figuring out how to make the defense work. Take the 1-3-3 as an example. Your fundamental points might be that Jeff is your best marker so he will mark and under no circumstances can the disc be thrown through the wall. Right away you will come to some problems: Jeff is getting really tired. The handlers are crashing in front of the wall. Don’t let go of your fundamental points, but start solving the problems. Can Jeff use his energy more wisely? Can the wall deal with the crashers without sacrificing integrity?
Good luck. As always, hit me with questions, if you got ’em.
Photo by Kevin Leclaire (Ultiphotos.com)