The ecology of Ultimate offenses is in a state of flux. After years of horizontal stack monoculture, we are seeing an increase in teams running vertical stack. All four of the finalists on the open side ran variations on vertical stack. The women’s finalists both ran horizontal offenses; Fury’s quite traditional and Riot’s quite new. Our sport is still so young that there are incredible opportunities for invention and creation. There is a constant quest for a ‘better’ offense. An offense that will be so perfect that it alone elevates its team to a championship. No offense will do that. Revolver won because they are more talented and they execute their system flawlessly. It isn’t the system. It is the talent and the execution. The return to vertical stack hints at a new stage in the development of ultimate. A stage where there are a variety of accepted strategies and methods. Each team, based on talent and preferences of leadership, pick and choose what they want to run. Here are the main offensive choices:
Standard Vertical The main principles of this offense are dump-swing handler movement, a cutting lane on either side of the stack that allows for in-out cuts. Because of the dump-swing required to access the far side of the field, this offense needs several handlers who can possess and reset the disc consistently. It is a very good system for a college team because it doesn’t require much in the way of judgment on the part of the cutters – usually your most inexperienced players. The main weakness is extreme vulnerability to the ‘triangle defense.’ Ironside runs this offense.
Standard Ho (Cutter) The set up for this offense is two lines of players (handlers and cutters) horizontally across the field. In this variation of the offense, the two central cutters churn for big under cuts and then look to huck it to the two cutters set up on the outside. The handlers stay back and possess the disc, ideally keeping it in the middle of the field. This offense requires very talented 3-cutters. The championship Furious teams who developed and ran this offense had Lugsdin and Grant as their central cutters. The weakness of this offense is how poorly it functions on the sideline. Furious’ solution was to run it as a side-stack at this point, but it still struggled on the edges. Fury runs this offense.
Standard Ho (Handler) Basically the same set up as the cutter version of this offense, but the two stacks are spread out a bit more with the cutters pushed back just a bit. This creates lots of space for handlers to cut up the line and across the front of the disc for leading passes and gut shot passes. These little handler to handler passes open up funny-space shots to cutters moving at angles down-field. You need a crew of good handlers to make this work. They run a lot and they need to be in rhythm with each other. This offense really spreads responsibility, so everyone needs to play near perfect for it to work. If everyone has a merely ‘good’ day, those turnovers can pile up fast. Riot runs a version of this offense.
Sidestack The plan for this offense is to move all the cutters to one sideline and create a single giant throwing lane on one side of the field. This creates a lot of space for each cutter. It your throwers can break the mark and huck no single defender can win their match up; there’s too many options to deal with. The defensive key against this offense is to play help defense and double team the main cutter. The tricky part here is the poaches really become a three man system (cover, poach and clean up) which is complicated and easy to mess up. Still, teams will try it, so if you run this offense you will need to be good at dealing with garbagey defenses. This is Revolver’s offense.
Spread The term spread has come to mean any offense that places the cutters across the field in a way that isn’t clearly horizontal. The original (‘German’) version of this offense came to the United States courtesy of Feldrunner Mainz in 1997. Their version featured four handlers back, a single central cutter and two deeps all the way back at the goal line. They would lead off with a space pass to the central cutter and then play 3-on-3 with the handlers coming up from behind. This version needs a great connection between the 2 and the 3; both should be dominant players. The main weaknesses are that it doesn’t run well in the wind and doesn’t recycle very well; it is hard to make it flow. There are other spread versions, but all are victim to the same major weaknesses. Many teams run these sets as pull plays, but no one uses them as flow.
80s Vert No dump. Stack a mile long. It’s hard to imagine how this offense works, but it does. By pushing the front of the stack away from the thrower, a huge space is created for handlers to work for big lateral swing passes. These swing passes gain yards and position, opening up throwing lanes to the cutters. The weakness is that it is comparatively too easy to shut down the reset, which generates short field turnovers. Seaweed uses these principles in their offense.
Fastbreak. Based on Nolan Richarson’s ’40 Minutes of Hell’, this offense puts the pedal on the floor and keeps it there. Every time there is a turnover, run and put the disc in play as soon as possible, including sprinting to pick up ob turns and bricks. The tempo of the offense is blinding and the disc should be moved by 3 in the stall count. The idea is to put constant, unrelenting pressure on the other team, generate easy goals and create mental and physical fatigue. The risk is that things can get very, very messy quickly and the turnovers can be really ugly. The other danger is that in a 7-game tournament, you will play 7-games at this pace but your opponents only one. Your conditioning and depth must be fantastic. Fugue 2010 ran this offense.
The subtext to this article has been to encourage you (as coach or captain) to consider the pros and cons of different systems and pick one that is going to work for your team. Just because Revolver or Ironside or Fury or Riot runs a system doesn’t mean that it is a good system for your team. Above all, commitment and execution are far more important than a perfect system. Doubt is for the off-season. Once the first practice begins, your focus should be on making what you have work as well as possible.
Feature photo by Andrew Davis